PEVEK, Russia – A renovated port. A brand new factory to generate electricity. Repaved roads. And money to repair the library and build a new plaza along the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
Globally, global warming is a creeping disaster, threatening lives and livelihoods through floods, fires and droughts, and requiring considerable effort and expense to address.
But in Pevek, a small port town on the Arctic Ocean in Russia’s Far North which is benefiting from a boom in Arctic shipping, global warming is seen as a barely mitigated boon.
“I would say it’s a rebirth,” said Valentina Khristoforova, curator of a local history museum. “We are in a new era.
As governments around the world race to ward off the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, the economics of global warming play out differently in Russia.
Arable land is expanding, with farmers planting corn in parts of Siberia where it had never grown before. Winter heating bills are falling, and Russian fishermen have found a modest catch of pollock in the thawed areas of the Arctic Ocean near Alaska.
Nowhere does the outlook look brighter than in Russia’s Far North, where rapidly rising temperatures have opened up a host of new possibilities, such as mining and energy projects. Perhaps the most important of these is the prospect, starting next year, of navigation in the Arctic all year round with specially designed “ice class” container ships, offering an alternative to Suez Canal.
The Kremlin’s policy on climate change is contradictory. It is not an important question in domestic politics. But still concerned about Russia’s global image, President Vladimir V. Putin recently promised for the first time that Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a prodigious producer of fossil fuels, would become carbon neutral d ‘by 2060.
Fortunately for Pevek and other Far North outposts, however, in practice the Russian approach seems to boil down to this: While climate change can be a huge threat to the future, why not? not take advantage of the business opportunities it offers in the present?
Across the Russian Arctic, a consortium of government-backed companies is at the midpoint of a five-year investment plan of 735 billion rubles, or about $ 10 billion, to develop the Northern Passage -Is a sea route between the Pacific and the Atlantic that the Russians call the Northern Sea Route. They plan to attract maritime transport between Asia and Europe which now crosses the Suez Canal, and to enable mining, gas and tourism companies.
The more the ice recedes, the more these business ideas make sense. Minimum summer pack ice over the Arctic Ocean is about a third below the 1980s average when monitoring began, researchers from the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center said last year. The ocean has lost nearly a million square kilometers of ice and is expected to be almost completely ice free in summer, even at the North Pole, by mid-century.
Pevek is a key port on the eastern edge of this thawing sea. Before the great ice melt and its economic possibilities, it was an icy backwater, one of the many dying outposts of the Soviet empire, on the way to becoming ghost towns.
It was founded in the 1940s as a gulag camp for the extraction of tin and uranium, where prisoners died in large numbers. “Pevek, it seemed, consisted of watchtowers,” remembers Aleksandr Tyumin, a former prisoner, in a collection of memoirs on camps in Arctic Siberia.
In the tundra outside the city, snow accumulates against the wrecks of abandoned helicopters, abandoned cars and fields of old fuel barrels, as the transport of waste is prohibitive.
In the eerie, empty gulag settlements scattered nearby, shattered windows gaze at the frozen wasteland.
In winter, the sun sinks below the horizon for months. A seasonal wind howls, exceeding 90 miles per hour. When it comes, parents don’t leave their children outside, lest they be blown away.
Pevek’s previous business plans have failed miserably. An effort to sell reindeer meat to Finland, for example, failed when Finnish inspectors rejected the product, said Raisa Tymoshenko, a reporter with the city’s newspaper, North Star.
Only a few years ago, the city and its satellite communities were mostly abandoned. The population had fallen to around 3,000 from around 25,000 in Soviet times. “There were rumors that the city would close,” said Pavel Rozhkov, a resident.
But with global warming, the wheel of fortune has turned and the population has grown by around 1,500 people, justifying, at least in a small pocket, the Kremlin’s strategy to adapt to change – spend where it counts. is needed and capitalize on it where possible.
This policy has its critics. “Russia talks about the merits of its adaptation approach because it wants to fully exploit the commercial potential of its fossil fuel resources,” said Marisol Maddox, Arctic analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Overall, she said, for Russia, “the evidence suggests that the risks far outweigh the benefits, however optimistic the Russian government’s language is.”
The Kremlin is not blind to the drawbacks of global warming, recognizing in a 2020 political decree “the vulnerability of Russia’s population, economy and natural resources to the consequences of climate change”.
Global warming, the plan notes, will require costly adaptations. The government will need to cut fire breaks in forests newly vulnerable to wildfires, strengthen river flood dams, rebuild homes that are collapsing in melting permafrost and prepare for a possible drop in global demand. of oil and natural gas.
Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company that coordinates investments in the seaway, said the initiative benefits from climate change but will also help combat it by reducing emissions from ships sailing between Europe and Asia from 23%, compared to the much longer Suez route. .
The trip from Busan, South Korea to Amsterdam, for example, is 13 days shorter on the Northern Sea Route, which represents a significant saving in time and fuel.
Maritime traffic in the Russian Arctic grew by around 50 percent last year, although it still only accounts for 3 percent of traffic through the Suez Canal. But a test last February with a specially reinforced commercial vessel provided evidence that the crossing can be crossed in winter, so traffic is expected to increase sharply when the route opens all next year, Russian media told.
“We will phase out transport from the Suez Canal,” Trutnev said of the plan. “A second possibility for humanity will certainly not bother anyone.”
Money is pouring in for projects in the Arctic. Rosatom signed an agreement in July with DP World, the Dubai-based port and logistics company, to develop ports and a fleet of ice-class container ships with specially reinforced hulls to navigate icy seas.
The thaw of the ocean has also made oil, gas and mining companies more profitable, reducing the costs of shipping supplies and products. A multibillion-dollar joint venture of Russian firm Novatek, Total in France, CNPC in China and other investors now exports about 5% of all liquefied natural gas traded globally on the thawing Arctic Ocean.
Overall, analysts say at least half a dozen major Russian companies in the energy, shipping and mining sectors will benefit from global warming.
One advantage that the people of Pevek haven’t experienced is the feeling that the climate is actually warming up. To them, the weather seems as cold and miserable as ever, despite an average temperature 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 20 years ago.
Global warming has been “a plus from an economic point of view,” said Olga Platonova, librarian. Still, she and other residents say that in light of the costly and dangerous changes to the world, they have no reason to celebrate.
And even here the environmental impacts are uncertain, many say, citing the alarming appearance (to them) in recent years of a flock of noisy crows never seen before.
And Mrs Platonova has another regret: “It is a pity that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren do not see the frozen north as we have experienced it.