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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Dirty Economy

The economic crisis that has racked Russia since last August may have made life more difficult for millions of ordinary people, but its effects have not been limited just to the economy. Environmental organizations say that the collapse has had a big effect on the country's environment - in ways both good and bad.

Since Russia's financial meltdown, factories have closed, enterprises have folded and emissions of some types of pollutants have dropped, continuing a trend that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a bitter irony, some Russians who have lived for years with bad air, dirty water or a dying river have at last seen an improvement, but only through the loss of factories providing desperately-needed work.

The most visible effect internationally has been the decrease in emissions from Russia of greenhouse gases, which are thought to be responsible for global warming. Russia now produces considerably less than its quota under the terms of the climate change treaty signed in Kyoto in 1997. But, to the dismay of most ecologists, most of the other improvements in Russia's generally disastrous environmental situation have also been due simply to the economic crisis.

Anatoly Yakovlev, spokesman for Rosgidrometr, the government's air and water monitoring service, says the level of emissions has shown an encouraging downward trend as a result of ten years of economic contraction. That level has dropped from 28 million tons in 1991 to less than 16 million by the start of 1997, or about 40 percent. Water pollution fell over the same period by almost as much. Across almost every sector the picture is the same - less production and less pollution.

The practical reality behind those figures is visible in places like Lake Seliger, in the Tver region, 250 kilometers northwest of Moscow. The near closure of one of the few sources of employment on the lake, a tanning factory set up as a Soviet-French joint venture, was another blow to the impoverished area and its people. But the lake many of them fish from and swim in has become cleaner as a result.

There are many places in Russia like Lake Seliger. But while the decline in the country's economic fortunes during the 1990s seems to have had a positive impact for the Russian environment overall, ecologists say that collapse has been a decidedly two-edged sword.

Mark Borozin, the editor of "Green World," Russia's largest environmental newspaper, said the fall in output has been matched by a drop in investment in maintenance and pollution control equipment. Factories that are producing are doing so in a dirtier way and are more prone to cut corners in following environmental laws and dealing with waste. "So there has not been a sharp improvement in the environmental situation due to the fact that factories are standing idle," Borozin says. "There is some improvement - but byten percent, by twelve percent."

Christoph Thies, international coordinator with the forest campaign of the environmental organization Greenpeace, says that the crisis, which has lead to a substantial slump in timber exploitation in Russia, is dangerous. He says that while being too rich causes major global environmental problems because of overconsumption, economic crisis also brings its own risks, since everything is produced as cheaply as possible.

Rosgidrometr has also noted that the fall in pollution since 1991 hides a worrying tendency. "We are alarmed by the fact that the drop in the level of emissions is not as large as the drop in production," spokesman Anatoly Yakovlev said.

The problem is made worse by the fact that many factories that are all but closed produce some pollution, frequently being fired up for a few days a month simply to keep production lines functional. At Lake Seliger, the leather factory maintains this minimal regime. With other factories on the lake still operating, it is unlikely the situation has actually improved much overall.

Another problem connected to the economic crisis is the fact that the sectors that have suffered most are often not the ones that produce the most pollution. According to Green World's Borozin, the crisis has not affected the "dirtiest sectors" of industry. Heavy industries like nickel smelting, oil refining and power generation, even if they have been hurt by the collapse, often have export outlets for their production, or are simply too big to be allowed to fold.

Some types of pollution, meanwhile, have actually become worse. In cities, particularly in Moscow, the rapid expansion in the number of cars has caused a serious problem. The number of private vehicles has grown to about 3 million for the Moscow region, accounting for more than 80 percent of the capital's increasingly bad air pollution.

When economic recovery finally comes, it may bring with it a sharp increase in pollution as a dirty economy picks up speed. Borozin points to China, where rapid development without environmental control has caused serious environmental damage.

But Thies is not entirely pessimistic. Despite the crisis and the threat to jobs, he believes that Russians still support environmental protection and want effective action to be taken. If the continuing degradation of the Russian environment is really to be checked in the long term, it will be through this and not the effects of economic collapse.

An economic crisis, thus, with its attendant large social problems and levels of unemployment, can only be bad for the environment. As Thies puts it: "Poverty can also drive environmental destruction."

Stephen Carter is a freelance radio and television producer based in Moscow.