Richard Branson – As Russia’s plans for its 2017 Year of Ecology, the world’s largest country has much to celebrate and influence both inside Russia and externally. Geographically it is a country of extremes – containing the planet’s largest expanse of forest with over 8 million square kilometres of mixed woodlands that’s home to tigers, bears and leopards.
The rest of the country ranges from semi-desert to cold tundra, from snowy peaks to open grasslands. It is also boasts 30 percent of the world’s natural resources and is the most resource-rich country in the world with an abundance of oil, natural gas and precious metals.
From forests to ocean to tigers, Russia is of global significance. We know that approximately 350-400 adult Siberian or Amur tigers are left in the wild, with 95% inhabiting the forests of the Russian Far East. Amur tigers require large, intact forest ecosystems and act as indicators of overall ecosystem health.
It’s wonderful that Russian and international conservation efforts have succeeded in stabilising the number of Amur tigers in the wild. However, there are still significant threats to this population, so it’s important that efforts continue.
Elsewhere, Russia has more than a fifth of the world’s forests, which makes it the largest forest country in the world. Saving these astonishing and unique landscapes from illegal logging, pollution and fires is critical not just for Russia – but also because they are essential carbon sinks to help stabilise the world’s climate in the face of escalating and dangerous climate change. Russia has recognised this, as forests are part of their climate contribution target which mention “the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests.”
In line with the recently agreed UN agreements on climate, Russia enjoys massive and exciting affordable opportunities for decarbonisation. These include huge economic opportunities available through embracing renewable energies like wind and solar, as well as improving the efficiency of industrial buildings, homes, cars and ships. Growing these sectors will enable job creation and economic diversification.
All of this comes back to enormous opportunities in sustaining Russia’s environment as part of its national security, stabilising the climate, the economy and assisting other nations with creating long-term sustainable development goals in line with the latest science.
At sea, we know Ocean waves are hiding the biggest potential threat to life on our planet because of a deadly mix of irresponsible fishing practices, pollution, warming and acidifying seas. And for many parts of the Ocean we still have no idea what natural treasures are found below.
Russia has recognised this in various guises. For example, in March 2014, it was the only country that submitted a list describing 9 ‘Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas’ within its own waters, as well in the high seas, which don’t belong to any country, of the Central Arctic Ocean.
Russia could pre-empt its own Year of Ecology by helping establish a robust, fair and enforceable high seas governance mechanism at the UN, for which negotiations begin this March. 2016 sees countries moving forward to negotiate this new treaty which will be key to increasing the abundance and diversity of life in the ocean and increasing the Ocean’s capacity as a carbon sink. Russia’s buy-in and contribution to making it work will be critical.
Leaders who care about our planet’s ecology need to look to the Ocean and its vital role for our biosphere; its potential to help restore climate balance, and to reverse the cumulative impact of the various harms we are inflicting on it. Russia is well- positioned to lead on what could be the biggest piece of Ocean protection ever, by finally supporting the protection of Antarctica’s Ross Sea. And, given Russia’s long history of exploration and scientific endeavour at both poles, the creation of large highly protected marine areas, designated as Ocean regeneration and scientific education zones, would be an unparalled achievement.
If 2017 is the Year of Russian Ecology, perhaps 2016 will be the year where Russia’s influence on the world stage brings into force some of the biggest environmental achievements humanity ever witnessed.