Eco-terrorism may become weapon for mad dictators in future – former Kremlin chief of staff

While climate and environmental issues may seem less serious than the breaking news of the day, ecology actually lies at the root of many of today’s global troubles and has the potential to affect all of mankind. World powers are already taking action with the Paris Climate Accord – but will the treaty succeed and achieve any results? And what exactly are the implications of climate change on the politics of the world? We ask the Russian presidential envoy for environment and transportation, who also served as Russia’s Defense Minister and as the Kremlin’s chief of staff – Sergei Ivanov.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Sergey Ivanov, Russian presidential envoy for environment and transportation, it’s really great to have you on our program once again.

Sergei Ivanov: Good afternoon.

SS: So, let’s talk about the The Paris Climate accord - a lot of politicians, governments, scientists, hailed it as historic by governments and scientists alike. But U.S. President Donald Trump says that he doesn’t care about climate change and he’s pledged to cancel the Paris accord. I mean, with him you never know because one day he says one thing, and another day he says another thing. So, what should we expect and we trust his statements?

SI: To start with, I won’t comment on President’s Trump’s attitude, we all know what he said before the election and what he is doing after. Well - it’s an American business and we have our own. As you know, the Paris Climate Change Agreement had been signed and it’s already ratified by 136 countries. Russia hasn’t yet done it because we want to carefully analyze the consequences of this Paris Climate Change agreement, it’s a framework agreement, we want to, let’s say, count the huge amount of Russian forest which absorbs a lot of carbon dioxide because, in fact, Russia is the world’s donor in ecology. Russia absorbs much more carbon dioxide that we then introduce. So, we want to make sure that our obligations will be fulfilled, as President Putin said during the summit of the Paris Agreement. We have a very ambitious aim of cutting our carbon dioxide emissions to the level of 70%, counting from the year 1990, which is very ambitious, and I’m sure we’ll hit the target by the year 2030.

SS: If you don’t mind, we’re going to talk in detail about the downfalls that this treaty could cause to Russian economy, but before that, why I ask about Trump’s statement is because I remember for instance, with the Kyoto protocol on global warming - it crumbled after George Bush abandoned it. So, I’m thinking, if Trump does the same, does it risk that the states that are involved will sort of say: “We don’t need this treaty anymore”?

SI: Look, Sophie, you are driving me to comment on the American position all the time. As I have said, regardless of the American position, we are concerned with the climate change. We think that there’s a global warning, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, I will comment on that later, but,  emitting carbon dioxide depends mainly on the sort of energy most of the world uses. I don’t know, again, what President Trump thinks, or the American business thinks, I suspect they don’t want the Paris Agreement to curtail their economic growth  - I only suspect that, I can’t insist on that, but that’s my approach.

SS: Okay, let’s leave Trump aside, but as someone who knows so much about it and who served so much in the government, do you feel, intuitively, that this accord will go down? Because Kyoto and Copenhagen didn’t really happen.

SI: Well, it depends. Of course, the Agreement will stay and the only reasonable attitude is that it will be fulfilled, finally, but there’s condition - by everybody. If one country, for example, forgets it and doesn’t stay in the limits which it promised, then, I’m sure that other countries will or might rethink their obligations - that’s quite possible. But so far - I would like to stress that again - the Paris Agreement is a framework agreement, there are no specific limits on anything, and as you probably know, the devil is in the details.

SS: So, let’s talk precisely about Russia. You’ve said that Russia is carefully accessing this framework. Implementing the Paris deal - what kind of economic downturns are we talking about for Russia?

SI: I don’t expect that they will be the end of the oil or natural gas epoch, I don’t believe it. At the same time, the number of solar energy in Russia grows - slowly, but gradually, and we have several regions like Caucasus, the Altai area or even Yakutia, far in the North,- where there’s a lot of sun a year round. In that limited areas it makes sense to use renewable energy, mainly sun energy. As I recently said, there’s also one source of renewable energy in Russia which has never been used at all - and I mean waste and litter, because we’re now going to build five big units where litter and waste will be burned, producing heat or electricity, and I’m sure Russia generates such amounts of waste that we always have a lot of waste to produce energy.

SS: That brings me to the other two questions, because, Russia, like you said, you don’t predict the end of the oil industry or fall of the oil industry - we are the largest producer of crude oils, second largest producer of natural gas. I mean, we’ve been doing pretty well in those fields. The existing scheme is so efficient - why invest in the renewables? Isn’t this a risk?

SI: First of all, its technologies, secondly, it is possible that - I’m not a clairvoyant, okay - but, we don’t know what will happen with the technologies in 100 years’ time. It’s quite possible that a new technology will emerge, which will make producing energy from wind or sun or waste cheaper than digging earth and producing natural gas or oil. I’m not sure.

SS: Do you think that… what would happen? You’re saying there will be oil but no one’s going to use it anymore because the new energy is going to be cheaper so everyone’s going to become renewable..

SI: I believe that, still, 100 years ahead, there will oil, there will be natural gas, but, for example, cars, which consume the most amount of oil as petrol, more and more cars will be electricity-driven.

SS: So, what about the near future, if we look at Europe, because we’re also one of the largest exporter of gas and oil to Europe, so, let’s say, we’re starting to pay attention and curb greenhouse gas emissions, and invest less into the resources that we’re talking about - that what happens to Europe? Will there be repercussions for them?

SI: What happens with Europe?

SS: Yes. I mean, we’re going to be, obviously, exporting less gas and oil, I’m so worried about them!

SI: First of all, I always insisted that Russia is also a European country. Mentally, geographically, even religiously, we are Europeans, and most of the Europeans whom I talk to agree to that. Secondly, it depends, of course, on the energy balance which I’ve mentioned before. Countries who don’t have a lot of natural resources, oil and gas, they are more motivated right now to move into the direction of renewable energy. Everything depends on price, on economy, but, again, if we speak of natural gas, it’s environmentally-friendly energy type. I don’t see how, for example, Germany, might substitute Russian gas in the nearest future. Once, I remember, our president joked when he was in Germany - he said: “Okay, you don’t like Russian coal, you don’t like Russian oil, you don’t like Russian gas - but how will you heat yourselves, using wood? But again, this wood will be Russian”.

SS: That leaves the question open, to be serious about it.

SI: Back to the Paris agreement - we are going to stick to it, we are going to ratify it. I would like to make that point very clear, and our goal is much more ambitious than most of the other countries in the world - 70% of carbon dioxide emission by 2030, is much more than our partners promised to do by the same time.

SS: What exactly is “eco-terrorism”?

SI: It exists in two very different forms. One is actions by very radical ecological organisations, like, for example, Greenpeace, who attack oil rigs or cut fisheries’ nets, and there’s another side of the story, or another side of the medal - if you remember, Iraq aggression against Kuwait in 1990, when Iraq withdrew its military forces out of Kuwait, under the world’s pressure, they set fire on oil rigs, exploded some of them so that a huge amount of oil went to the Gulf of Persia, and for many years there was no fish, no life, no sea life. It’s called, in my view, eco-terrorism. So, eco-terrorism already exists. I can forecast, this century, another type of threat: that one country, for different reasons, maybe economic, maybe political, won’t comply with international environmental laws and in that case I may forecast international ecological sanctions against this or that country.

SS: Do you feel like the threat of eco-terrorism right now is more acute than when Iraq-Kuwait war happened?

SI: I wouldn’t say it’s more acute, but I still think it’s theoretically possible. It’s possible. Some, I don’t know, some mad dictator, for example, might use environmental disaster as a last resort to withstand foreign pressure. It’s possible. Unfortunately.

SS: I want to talk about Arctic, because that’s another huge topic - everyone’s talking about that it has twenty-two percent of world’s undiscovered oil and gas. Do you think the race for this piece of pie could cause further tensions on the international scene.

SI: You are quite right that a huge amount of oil and gas, but not only energy - gold, diamonds, platinum are in the Arctic, and partly they are already developed. I’m sure this movement of Russia in the direction of the Arctic will continue. That I am absolutely sure of. It depends on how economic interests and economic reasons coincide with environmental protection. If we speak about oil rigs or natural gas rigs, offshore rigs, they should be much more reliable and safe than, for example, those used offshore of Africa, near Nigeria. So, environmental limitations and rules should be much stricter than they are elsewhere.

SS: I know you’re going to say “I don’t want to comment on politics”, but sometimes anything that has to do with environment is linked to politics and you can’t separate this two, and you said that Russia will continue its movement towards the Arctic, so the latest Arctic military drills, they’ve caused a lot of uproar in Europe and the media has actually even compared it to the Cold War-style saber rattling. Why do you think that anything that Russia does in the region is automatically considered as aggression?

SI: Well, I don’t see much military activity in the Arctic, to be frank. I was a Minister of Defence for six years, so I know what I’m talking about. We have several - which you might call “new” - Arctic bases, but, in fact, they are not new. They existed during the soviet times. We are simply getting back after the disintegration of the country, after cutting the military budget. Besides, our Arctic military bases, they don’t affect international security. It’s not nuclear missile sites, it’s nothing like that. They are purely defensive - for example, air defence systems - why can’t we deploy air defence systems on our national territory? We don't move our military infrastructure outside our own country. Secondly, military bases in fact help exploring the Arctic and using it for quite peaceful purposes. For example, in meteorology, in weather forecasting, in examining the rifts of the ice. The Arctic Ocean is definitely melting down. That’s a fact, and it melts down rather dramatically.

SS: So, like you’ve said, it’s melting down - it’s just like free water, so anyone can cross them at some point. By 2030, they said it’s going to be ice-free in the summer.

SI: It depends. I can give you one figure. The Arctic area melts down quicker, much quicker, than the northern hemisphere in general. In the last 30 years, the temperature in the Arctic changed 0.8 degrees centigrade in 30 years. That’s quite a lot. Of course, nobody expects that the Arctic will melt down overnight, that’s impossible and thank God it wouldn’t happen that way. But, it definitely melts down. For Russia there are both pros and cons in that. Pros, of course, if the northern Arctic sea route will be free, it will bring Russia huge benefits in transportation, because the “road” as we call it, seaway, from Murmansk to Vladivostok is twice as short as  it is now via the Indian Ocean. There are also cons. For example, if the tundra starts to melt down, then, a lot of construction, already existing in that area, I wouldn’t say “collapses”, but it will create a lot of problems. So, it depends.

SS: The way you talk and the way scientists talk, it does seem kind of inevitable that at some point it’s going to be ice-free in the summer. Is it going to be like new Suez canal?

SI: I don’t expect it will be ice-free.

SS: No?

SI: Maybe, in 200-300 years.

SS: Oh.

SI: But, okay, right now Arctic melts down, but who knows what will happen in 300-400 years? Maybe it will start to cool. I always mention northern hemisphere. Once I was in the Antarctic. There are several Russian Antarctic stations, and we monitor the climate there for already 60 years, and the amount of ice in the Antarctic is not melting down, but it grows. In simple language, I think, the climate of the world - it breathes. It’s getting cooler, it’s getting warmer, it’s getting cooler and getting warmer, and to make very far-reaching conclusions you need a scientific data for a period of at least 1000 years, to make conclusions. The mankind, so far, has scientific data for, let’s say, 100 years. It’s nothing, it’s really nothing.

SS: Right, let’s wait and see 200-300 years, what happens. I want to touch upon another topic which is water. Water shortfall, which is also predicted in 2030 by the UN protocol. You know, there are already tensions when you look at Egypt and its neighbors. Do you feel like lack water could be something that could trigger the  next big conflict in the future?

SI: Yes. To make it short, I believe in it. Once I lived in Africa. I’m an old spy, okay. Right now it’s already a huge problem in Africa, with fresh water. It already exists and there are lots of areas in the world - Central Asia, some other Asian countries, Africa - where there’s not enough pure drinking water. Russia is blessed to host a huge amount of fresh, clean water. Lake Baikal alone keeps nearly ¼ of world’s fresh water. We are blessed and lucky to have such amount.

SS: Do you see Russia becoming a huge fresh water exporter in the future?

SI: Yes. It’s quite possible. In fact, we already are exporting some fresh drinking Baikal water. It’s very expensive. It costs around $2 a bottle, but people buy it.

SS: Could you actually pay attention to water shortage and predict or prevent conflicts?

SI: Well, first of all, there is a shortage of fresh water, generally, not only drinking, but just fresh water for agriculture. It’s already a problem and you are quite right in saying that there are conflicts around water. There are many conflicts around water already happening in the world. Russia understands the problem of the world and we have a lot of bilateral agreement on so-called transnational rivers or transnational lakes. Secondly, there are new technologies and I believe in them making fresh water out of salt water, ocean water. I love technologies, and, maybe, you know, it concerns with environmental. Next year, I hope that Russia will launch a first floating nuclear station. It will be based in Chukotka. The aim, of course, is energy, but scientists told me that the same floating nuclear station might easily make fresh water out of ocean water, it’s possible. It’s a new resource for the world. Speaking about Arab countries, African countries - you are right. The world becomes more and more unpredictable, because of lacking fresh water, and there are already conflicts, and, unfortunately - I don’t want to be a bad forecaster - but I believe there will be future wars because of fresh water.

SS: So we’re going to see, like, water pipelines instead of oil pipelines?

SI: There are scientists who say that in future Russia will earn more exporting fresh water than oil and gas.

SS: Arab countries are already interested in having something similar to the power plant that you’re talking about. But given the region’s security problems, is it safe for them to have something like that? I mean, what pirates hijack it, or, I don’t know, terrorists…

SI: You mean nuclear power station?

SS: Or it gets hit by a stray tomahawk missile….

SI: I can open a state secret, if you like. Of course, I’m joking it’s not a very tough-kept state secret, but if you take a Jumbo jet, Boeing for example, going down straight to the center of the modern nuclear power station, I assure you that nothing will happen. So other modern technologies, at least nuclear scientists, who produce modern types of nuclear power stations, guarantee that in writing, putting their name and all their authority that the safety of the modern 5th generation nuclear power stations are absolutely guaranteed against every possible or conceivable natural disaster. Of course, if you hit a nuclear warhead at the nuclear power station, that will be a catastrophe, but I hope mankind wouldn’t lose its mind completely.

SS: On that optimistic note - thank you so much for this interview!