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Perestroika and permafrost

Russia has been a rather puzzling actor in the complicated diplomatic game which resulted in the Kyoto protocol, and which will be played out again in Copenhagen in December. Climate warming doesn’t make headlines, and has so far not been a big concern, between Moscow and Vladivostok. What prompted Russian leaders to ratify Kyoto was the prospect of making good money from emissions trading, rather than conviction that man-made climate change is a real phenomenon and a threat to society.


Now they have changed their minds. In April, Vladimir Putin and his ministers approved a new climate ‘doctrine’ – well, that’s how they call these things in Moscow – which for the first time officially recognizes severe risks of global warming and calls for immediate action. My story over at Nature News explains the nature and significance of the baffling doctrine, details of which are beginning to leak.

Critics point out that Russia plans to focus on adaptation to climate change, while putting less emphasis on actually reducing its emissions. Others say Russia’s new climate policy has been quietly constructed behind closed doors, without any involvement from industry, NGOs and the public. That’s all true; but Russia’s recognition of the scientific basis of climate change, and its apparent willingness to pro-actively partake in international climate protection efforts, outweighs these flaws. Let’s see what Moscow will put on the table in Copenhagen.

Sure, all eyes in December will be on China, and Russia’s taciturn climate diplomacy has in the past been a fickle and half-hearted affair. Even so, one must not under-estimate Moscow’s influence at international negotiation tables.

The climatic importance of Russia’s natural landscape, in particular its boreal forests and its permafrost soils, is beyond doubt anyway. For example, huge amounts of old carbon that accumulated over thousands of years are stored in permafrost soils which occupy more than 60% of Russia’s 17 million square-kilometre land area. How much of it will be released as the southern permafrost boundary shifts northwards as a result of climate warming, possibly by up to 100 kilometres in the next 20-25 years?

A paper in Nature this week suggests that, globally, permafrost thawing may lead to the release of an extra billion tonnes of carbon per year into the atmosphere. The team measured carbon flows at a tundra site in Alaska where permafrost has been thawing for 20 years, and then calculated from the data the likely trajectory of global carbon release from thawing permafrost. Here’s an editor’s summary.

Russian scientists were not involved in the study, led by Edward Schuur of the University of Florida in Gainesville. That’s a pity. If Moscow’s new interest in climate led to more frequent east-west collaborations in science, such as on permafrost, it would be a boon.

Quirin Schiermeier


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