Armen Oganesyan, Editor-in-Chief, International Affairs: Alexey Olegovich, these days everything related to the weather and climate change is of special interest to us and the world at large. The reason for this is natural disasters that are uncharacteristic of the region: tornadoes, typhoons, hurricanes, and tropical storms. What is going on?
A. Kokorin: I will say right away that we did not have tornadoes or typhoons. On May 29, there was a collision of two fronts and the temperature difference caused a strong wind – up to 30 meters per second, an all-time record. However, similar phenomena occurred in July 2016 and in July 1998. In terms of atmospheric physics, this phenomenon is entirely different than, for example, typhoons or tornados.
Q: What is the cause of these phenomena?
A: It is impossible to identify a specific cause. However, it is a fact that anomalous phenomena (stronger winds, gale-force winds) are becoming more frequent. Measurements made across the Russian territory show that this is a meridional intrusion of cold air masses. Therefore, this measurement of the meridional transfer is the result of certain fluctuations in the climate system as it receives a greater amount of energy. Such phenomena are brought about by a slight increase in the greenhouse effect, caused by the effects of human economic activity, and transformed through complex oceanic-atmospheric interaction models.
Q: Is this a local manifestation of global processes?
A: Yes, it is. Greater fluctuation is a global trend. This does not mean that you have a new generator: You still have the same one except that it works with greater amplitude. In other words, we did not have a typhoon.
Q: Still, what is going on in the world – global warming or global cooling?
A: Definitely warming, which manifests itself in the warming of the main element of the climatic system – the ocean. This is an empirical fact. It is more correct to talk about climate change because it involves primarily fluctuations and abrupt ups and downs.
It may happen that, if we do not ratify the Paris Agreement before the fall of 2018, we will not be able to vote at Paris Agreement bodies, whereas the Americans will.
Q: Does marine pollution impact climate change? Can countries unite to clean up the oceans?
A: This requires rather a weighty reason. So far, a greater threat to the oceans, especially to marine life, including calcium shells and hulls, is increasing ocean acidification. High CO2 levels in the atmosphere lead to ocean acidification. This is a rather complex process and it is apparently responsible for coral bleaching. Under these circumstances, marine species that have their own “houses” will be affected first. Then fish will be affected.
Research is underway and if it proves that this process poses a serious threat to the atmosphere and the climate, then this will become an additional argument in favor of reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. As for garbage, there is no specific information as to what exactly will happen if we spend a lot of money on water purification projects. Although of course, we are now cleaning up the Arctic. In Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, Franz Josef Land, all historical structures are intact but there are no more stockpiles of scrap metal.
Q: Let’s go back to the issue of global warming. During the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy in ancient times, when the city of Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash, a colossal amount of harmful substances was emitted and released into the atmosphere from the crater – more than the world’s entire industry emits today. And well, the Earth is still alive. How harmful are emissions for the atmosphere – the way they are described by those who seek to capitalize on protecting the climate?
A: From a climatological perspective, there are two aspects here. First, not so many harmful substances were emitted. At any rate, regarding carbon dioxide, there was far less of it than what mankind emits today. Second, a great deal depends on where such substances are emitted – into the stratosphere or the environment (as in the case of Vesuvius, when the ash settled down right there).
Do you remember the eruption of a volcano in Iceland? Aircraft in Europe were grounded but the stratosphere remained clean. The geometry of the eruption was such that volcanic ash settled in the lower atmosphere. The ocean is so great that it was practically not affected. However, when emissions occur only in the troposphere, then those who live nearby perish. If a large amount of harmful substances gets into the stratosphere, into the upper atmosphere, then volcanic ash stays there for a long time, blocking sunlight, and then indeed there can be a significant temperature drop for about three years and in case of a heavy eruption, as long as five years.
It may be recalled that after the Napoleonic wars, there was no summer, no good harvest crops for three years in Europe. Many people saw that as retribution for Bonaparte’s crimes but they did not know that at that time there was a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia, which blocked sunlight. This April, May, and June, there were no volcanic eruptions: These are the vicissitudes of climate.
Of course, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions also depends on human activity. Isotopic composition shows that the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is connected to burning coal and gas. We have a carbon dioxide exchange between the oceans and the atmosphere, but it is balanced. As for why the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has increased by a third – this has never happened in the history of mankind – isotopic analysis shows that this comes from burning fuel.
Q: What, in your opinion, prompted President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement?
A: It needs to be said that I listened to Donald Trump’s speech very attentively. If previously it was suggested that climate change was invented by the Chinese in order to destroy the U.S. economy, this time I did not hear such assertions. What’s more, he said that an agreement is necessary but this version of the agreement is financially unfavorable for the United States. The entire argumentation was purely financial granted, those who have a better understanding of U.S. politics than I say that it is very important for him to fulfill the promise that he made when he ran for the presidency. And he promised to withdraw from the Paris agreement.
Q: How will the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement impact us?
A: I do not think it will impact us at all. It is a long-term framework agreement that was ratified by 148 countries, all our main trading partners. All of them in some way or other introduce domestic regulations and reform the energy sector. This is what impacts us. As for the United States, it is not our trading partner. And we do not sell coal to the U.S.
It is a long-term agreement and it has no official stages. There are five-year review cycles of so-called national finance commitments. It is a long-term accord and President Trump will not be in office for more than eight years. Carbon emissions in the U.S. are declining anyway. Over the past 14 years, emissions declined by 15% without any special effort. Emissions will continue to decline because this is the way the U.S. economy develops. Will they be 22% lower, as forecast, without additional measures? Perhaps, if Obama became president again and special measures were implemented. However, even that is a relatively small effect.
Q: Why has Russia not ratified the Paris Agreement although it signed it?
A: I believe this is a result of some misunderstanding. At first, Russian coal producers decided [that it should be ratified] without studying it thoroughly but then they realized that the agreement would make it impossible for them to increase Russian coal exports to the Asian market.
However, there is a confusion of concepts here. Coal sales do not depend on Russia’s ratification of the agreement but on its ratification by those countries that would like to buy our coal and had plans to buy it (meanwhile now they are gradually abandoning those plans). However, since their voice was quite loud – but after all is said and done, if this will happen in 2019, our rights at climate talks could be somewhat infringed.
Something paradoxical could even happen in 2019. The Americans would have veto power but we would not. Because ratification de jure comes into effect only in four years. This is the peculiar way withdrawal from this agreement is formulated. The Americans ratified it, then annulled their ratification after submitting to the UN a corresponding document signed by Trump, and it will come into effect after a certain period. In 2019, not all climate convention countries but only parties to the agreement will make decisions on the Paris Agreement. Therefore, it may happen that if we do not ratify it before the fall of 2018 we will not be able to vote at Paris Agreement bodies, whereas the Americans will. So, the Americans act very cleverly.
Q: You have touched on the issue of the Arctic. Over the past 30 years, the ice volume there has shrunk by two-fourths. If the current trends continue, there will probably be no ice left in the Arctic Ocean by 2040. There are attempts to take a positive view of this tendency: new opportunities for shipping, as well as access to oil reserves. Do you believe Arctic ice melting is disastrous for the planet?
A: Three-fourths of the ice area relate to the ice volume during the period when the ice area is minimal – that is, at the end of September. In winter, the entire Arctic is covered with ice and there is no doubt that it will be covered with ice for many, many decades to come. There are calculations of the duration of the navigation. The duration of navigation is the most important factor for safe transportation.
In the western sector of the Arctic, roughly speaking on Taimyr, the ice is weaker indeed. Small ice-class vessels can sail there, and all of the million [metric] tons that our president talked about – all of that is in the western sector. As for trade shipping from Europe to China, this is still very, very far away. By 2020, the duration of end-to-end navigation will not increase very much – maybe by another 30 days, and it will be very unstable: One year is high and another is low. There will be more storms there because the less ice, the more storms. There may be icebergs, ice fields, and so on – in other words, there are quite a few problems for ideal logistics. Therefore, end-to-end navigation via the Northern Sea Route should better be postponed until the middle of the century.
With regard to oil, access apart, what is the price of that oil? As is known, there are very many oil reserves but cheap oil is getting scarce. As for expensive oil, there is no need for it because there are other solutions.
Q: Eco-friendly passenger transport is being put into operation in Asian and European countries. Are similar projects being implemented in Russia?
A: Step by step, yes. First of all, public transport should be converted to electricity. It is easy to charge a battery in a bus depot. It is another thing that fuel in our country is not so expensive and the air pollution problem is much better than in Asian countries. Nevertheless, it is of course important to move along this path. I know that in Murmansk they have managed to replace all soot emitting buses and soot is the worst possible carcinogen. There are a lot of problems there but the buses were replaced.
Q: What are the main environmental challenges to Russia?
A: The main problem is a garbage disposal. Granted, sometimes everything is reduced to incineration plants. Second, the clean air problem exists in many cities. I was recently in Krasnoyarsk. If in our case it is only on Taganka [in the center of Moscow] at the end of a working day that there is no clean air to breathe, in Krasnoyarsk the situation is far worse. Third, we need to prepare to adapt to climate change – initially in the health care sector, wildfires, and forestry, and then down the entire chain in all areas. Some attempts are being made but as is often the case, that is mostly on paper, not in reality. There is tick-borne encephalitis in some areas and respiratory or cardiac diseases in others. I believe that there should be a federal program and a national plan for adaptation to climate change, but the responsibility for their implementation should be delegated to regions.