While environmental management had never been the forte of the Soviet Union, its collapse had even more dire environmental consequences, with the abandonment of mineral and chemical factories and the shirking of responsibilities for clean-ups, and the subsequent development of the oil and gas sector by oligarchs that now constitute one of the major economic sectors of the country – contributing to even more greenhouse gas emissions.
What if I told you, though, that there were also positive developments from a climate change perspective that came from the economic shock that was the collapse of the Soviet Union?
As the idea of collectivist farming was quickly abandoned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, much of the vast territories that had been used for collective food production gradually turned into wilderness again – and the mere scale of this development, which covers around 45 million ha (111,197,421 acres) and is considered the greatest land-use change of the 20th century, had quite important, albeit accidental, impacts on Russia’s carbon tally.
According to new research, these abandoned areas – about 23 percent of arable land in Russia – sequester 42.5 million metric tons of carbon each year by acting as carbon sinks. In doing so, they actually offset 10 percent of Russia’s yearly carbon emissions. Each acre of newly wild land can thus absorb up to 93 tons of carbon annually. According to the paper publishing the research, this “compensates all fire and post-fire CO2 emissions in Russia and covers about 4% of the global CO2 release due to deforestation and other land use changes.“
As the article that drew me to this topic points out, though, abandoning farm land is not necessarily the best social and economic option to combat climate change, as these structural changes came with intense hardship for the people from the former USSR. Yet, no-till farming, cover-crop planting and other climate-aware agricultural strategies could at least be steps in the right direction.
On the other hand, it also gives us a good tally of the reversability of land use, and indeed of the value we can attribute to non-farmed land in an era where land-use changes toward farming are happening at a quickening pace around the world. Even our case study, Russia, is worried about its food security and is attempting to strengthen its agricultural sector to provide Russian food for the Russian people. Coming, of course, at the expense of these beneficial carbon sink effects that were only just discovered.
Does this research surprise you? I certainly never thought of the USSR collapse from this perspective!