Barents region news

Dr. Masloboev: “Environmental Disaster Is Not Bound To Happen”

18 November 2019

The researcher believes that both the Russian and the Scandinavian parts of the Barents Region face the same sets of ecological issues. While some of them are widely discussed, the other ones draw much less attention. Dr. Masloboev shared his opinion regarding the recent session of the Security Council on climatic issues, as well as the view that sustainability cannot be achieved without restricting economic growth. 

Dr. Vladimir Masloboev, a long-time researcher at the Kola Science Center under the Russian Academy of Science, has (co-)authored more than 500 papers. His area of expertise is technological aspects of the preservation and environmental protection, as well as issues relating to the Barents Region.

— What is your view of the present-day environmental situation in the Barents region and on the Kola peninsula?

—  Environmental situation is a multi-faceted thing. If we look at the Murmansk Region as a whole, there are pockets of issues affecting certain areas. The Eastern part of the Kola peninsula is almost fine. Challenges exist mainly in the heavily industrialized areas. In [the cities of] Apatity and Kirovsk, we deal mainly with dust originating from apatite-nepheline ore tailings. The dust content in the air can exceed maximum allowable concentration for just a few days a year, and sometimes for as long as one week. The situation there is not permanently bad, with dust concentrations increasing during windy summer months, when the surface of tailing ponds dries up, and the dust is carried by the wind to Apatity and, to a lesser extent, Kirovsk.

The second such area is that of Pechenga and Zapolyarny. In Zapolyarny, placing into service the workshop for the copper-nickel concentrate cold briquetting helped considerably reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide released into the atmosphere. The metallurgy plant operating in the vicinity of the township of Nikel is responsible for occasionally emitting exceedingly high amounts of sulfur dioxide gas. This happens mainly when the weather conditions make these pollutant gases go downward. Unfortunately, the plant is built the way that, under the mentioned conditions, this gas descends to the valley where Nikel is located.

There is a program funded by NEFCO aiming to tackle environmental issues in the affected geographical areas. However, NEFCO is a financial institution with its own vested interests, which makes money from lending to environmental projects.

The Scandinavian part of the Barents region, generally, faces the same issues, such as the emissions from aluminum plants, pollution generated by solid industrial and household waste landfills, and the contamination of water with the mining waste dumped in fjords.  They are less known to the public and less talked about, the Russian part of the region accounting for the larger part of the environmental agenda. This imbalance should be addressed, as the situation requires that we deal with the ecology issues throughout the region as a whole.

— Tell us about cooperation with the Scandinavian environmentalists. Are there any successful joint projects?

— We run a lot of such projects. Overall, the ongoing cooperation in the field of environment is managed by the International Cooperation Directorate under the Federal Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. It is responsible for environmental cooperation with the Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.  Intergovernmental initiatives are managed by bilateral working groups on environment, with each intergovernmental commission having its own work plan. Perhaps the most successful environment-related project is the one known as the Green Belt of Fennoscandia. It is a network of protected areas located in a 50-kilometer zone covering both sides of the borderline separating Russia from Finland and Norway.

Russia and Norway fruitfully cooperate in the field of radioactive waste treatment. For instance, the Norwegians account for providing the major part of funds used to switch Russian uncrewed lighthouses and beacons from radioisotope thermoelectric power to solar and wind power. Owing to this effort, numerous lighthouses and beacons located along Russia’s Barents Sea coastline now function in a more environment-friendly way, with their radioisotope thermoelectric generators removed and relocated to storage facilities.

Disassembling the Lepse service vessel is a yet another example of this cooperation. Last month, the first batch of radioactive material previously stored on-board Lepse was relocated to an Atomflot installation to be further transported to the Mayak reprocessing plant. Nuclear waste removal from Andreeva Bay is one more such example.

It is noteworthy that Russia and Norway have a unique intergovernmental agreement on environmental cooperation; there is nothing like this in Russia’s relations with other nations.

— What should be done to make the sustainable development strategy work in Russia? To what extent is Russia ready to put in place its mechanisms?

— There is the Presidential Decree “On the Strategy of Sustainable Development of the Russian Federation”. Legally, everything is set and ready for putting this concept in practice. One may say that sustainable development is some sort of a slogan originating from the findings, conclusions and recommendations made by the UN Committee presided by Gro Harlem Brundtland back in 1984. Those recommendations bearing on our common future, their key point is that we should develop the way to both meet the needs of the present-day society and ensure that future generations enjoy the same opportunity.

In my view, in Russia, the very concept of sustainable development is understood rather one-sidedly, that is as stable economic growth. In fact, the sustainable development mechanisms focus on meeting both economic, societal and environmental needs. If seen as overlapping circles, the imaginary triangle where these sets of needs intersect is where you find sustainability. Sustainable development entails the introduction of certain limitations: for instance, economic growth must be restricted so as to not harm the environment. In time, we will reach some common understanding and will work together to ensure a sustainable economic growth while honoring and safeguarding the rights of future generations. It looks like quite a complicated mechanism, which needs years of work to be put in place, and which can hardly be introduced by merely issuing a Presidential Decree.

—  Did the recent session of the Security Council fully meet your expectations? What were you expecting, and did your expectations come true?

— The very idea of the Security Council's addressing the climate issue on a recurring basis is a good thing. Let me remind you that a big discussion panel on environment was hosted by the Russia's Security Council back in 2016. The decisions taken at that panel laid ground for the Environment National Project providing a framework for the distribution of budgetary subsidies to address the environmental challenges both regionally and at the national level.

That was the right thing to do. Those decisions will enable us to design measures as regards adapting to the climate change.

The climatic issue is even more tricky than that of the ecology, the reason for this being that when climate changes, natural disasters become more frequent. We can see from statistics that their number is on the rise. When asked if there is global warming, Yuri Israel, a renowned scientist and member of the Academy, used to say:   “We all see that the climate is changing. Is there a warming trend? Yes, there is such a trend. However, we cannot say with certainty that there is going to be warming. We can only confirm that the climatic instability is growing.” Those environmental incidents and disasters deal a lot of damage.

Logically, preventive measures aiming to adapt ourselves to the ongoing climate change are needed. However, there are economic risks. We may spend a lot of money on preparedness, and the disaster we were preparing to may simply not happen. No one wants to waste money. Therefore, both in Russia and worldwide, the prevailing approach is to disburse funds only if there is some sort of emergency at hand. 

Both governments and big business tend to block any initiatives aiming at implementing preventive measures. In the Murmansk region, it is mining companies that downplay the issue of preventive mitigation of environment-related risks. As an illustration, it is possible that, at some point, mines may be flooded. Companies may invest money into erecting dams to prevent this.  However, suppose we would have drought instead of flood, and our major matter of concern would be dust coming from the existing tailing disposal sites. Then we may want to invest into upgrading those sites instead. And what if none of that happens? This high degree of uncertainty is the key factor impeding the efforts aiming to design preventive strategies and measures.

The other issue is understanding the real role of humanity in terms of the global climate change. With the world economy growing, the global consumption of fossil fuels goes up to provide the matching amount of energy. Any fuel emits greenhouse gases, first and foremost CO2, when being burnt. The traditional paradigm says that an increase in CO2 content in the atmosphere causes the so-called greenhouse effect. An increase of the average annual temperature of the Earth by more than 1.5 °C by 2050 may cause a series of catastrophic events. However, this is not based on scientific research, and may simply be not true. Nonetheless, we still exercise caution in what regards our environmental footprint. The country’s leadership decided to ratify the Paris climate agreement, which means that we will have to take some steps aiming to reduce this footprint. In macroeconomic terms, that will result in a drop in the global consumption of fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, which is bad for this country's economy. Moreover, fossil fuels accounting for an important portion of our export, a decrease in their extraction may cause a fuel deficits on a global scale, while hitting hard our national budget and the government's ability to fund social programs. On the one hand, we are still not sure about what should be done to address the climate change, while on the other hand, some steps must be taken urgently.

— Is using coal compatible with responsible environmental policies?

— Denmark was one of the pioneer countries in introducing renewables, with a special emphasis having been made on wind energy.  The country accounts for numerous wind turbines located throughout its territory both on land and water; however, coal plants are still the backbone of the Danish energy sector. The country keeps importing around 5 million tons of coal per year from the South Africa. When traveling across Denmark, you cannot help noticing white fumes coming from power plants’ pipes. Nonetheless, the environmental consequences of using coal as fuel, apart from CO2 emissions, are virtually nil, as all power plants there are equipped with good filtering systems. At production facilities, they widely use such solutions as burnt lime injection and the utilization of sulfur dioxide, dust and other pollutants. Many countries pledged to completely switch to renewables by 2050. They completely rule out the use of nuclear energy, which happens to be the cleanest in terms of greenhouse emissions and environmental footprint. Nuclear power plants emit zero grams of carbon dioxide. They are not ideal either: with nuclear waste disposal being an issue, many countries renounce the prospect of developing nuclear power sector for that specific reason. 

Nowadays, renewables account for about 8 per cent of world power generation. It is hard to believe that their share may one day grow up to 100 per cent.  One of the reasons for this is that wind power, for instance, creates environmental issues by itself. First, they need a lot of space to operate. Secondly, they are bad for bird populations, the latter being decimated by wind farms operating in the areas crossed by birds during migration.  Thirdly, people are not advised to live in the vicinity of wind farms. Wind turbine blades emit low-frequency electromagnetic waves, and this is bad for both people and animals. This is why sometimes we cannot help noticing that our European neighbors practice double standards. For example, in 1994-1995, Sweden held a referendum, which resulted in a decision to put all Swedish atomic power plants out of service. At that time, they had 13 nuclear reactors, of which an old one was decommissioned as per that decision. However, the rest are still operated, as there is no viable alternatives to them. A huge portion of agendas being shaped by climate alarmism, a balanced and well-thought-off approach to these issues is yet to be found.

— What is your take on our future? Is the global environmental disaster avoidable?

— We have perfect chances to avoid any bad environmental scenario. First and foremost, if needed, Russia can switch from fossil fuels to natural gas, the cleanest source of energy. We have enough reserves to meet the demand of our home energy market. I hope that the Murmansk region will be connected to the gas supply grid, and that regional mining and metallurgy production facilities will switch to natural gas as a fuel, which will allow to decrease the carbon dioxide emissions. 

There is one more issue.  Russia is known to be the 5th world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas. However, it is often overlooked that this country contributes immensely to the global carbon sequestration. Russia is home to the second-largest forests (after Brazil), which capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide. In this light, we should take steps to stop and prevent forest fires affecting Siberia and Far East and plant new forests. That way, we would be able to make our contribution to the global conservation effort. Technically, nothing prevents us from doing this. All we need is the will to adhere to the principles of sustainable development.