New research group dives into Russia's hydrocarbon culture

Russia and environment – a pairing that mostly brings to mind dire associations, threatening images of local as well as global environmental disasters. The extraction and refining of oil and gas is a major source of pollution, and the traditional heavy industry that runs on fossile fuels is not exactly known for its energy efficiency. The vast country does, however, also hold the keys to significant solutions to global environmental challenges such as climate change.

— Russia is already producing 11% of its energy by hydropower. It is estimated that by 2030 Russia could produce 100% of the electricity on domestic market using renewable energy sources, and even become an exporter of clean energy in the future, says Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen, assistant professor of Russian environmental policy. 

— There are regions that get the same amount of sunshine as Southern Europe where as the Siberian tundra presents great conditions for windpower. Bioenergy is an option worth consideration, too.

Why, then, is Russia not taking up the role of a super hero that saves the world from climate change?

According to Tynkkynen, the reason lies in the deeply rooted phenomenon he calls the Russian hydro-carbon culture, where energy and political power are powerfully intertwined. Although the fossile energy section employs less than 5% of the working population, the production and trade of fossile fuels is crucial for maintaining what little there is of a wellfare society. The gas pipelines reach every town and village and state-owned companies such as Gasprom continue to provide people with cheap fuel. The companies are also actively and visibly involved in local initiatives, sponsoring for example the building of new sports facilities.  

— It is simply a social contract where the people demand cheap living and are in return willing to ignore the defects and malpractises of those in power. Who would be crazy enough to challenge a system that seems to be the only thing that keeps the people – the voters – from starving or freezing to death?

The fact that there’s considerable overlapping of Russian political and economical elites makes the situation even more difficult, as Tynkkynen points out. It’s hard to find any real motivation for significant change.

Complex problems call for diverse expertise

Because the problems of environment and energy are so thoroughly intertwined with questions of politics and society, the only way to tackle them is multidisciplinary cooperation.

Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen realised this early on in his career. Working as professor of Russian energy policy in 2011-2017 he successfully applied for funding for projects that combined social and political sciences with expertise in the energy sector and environment. When he was appointed to the new professorship in Russian envorinmental studies in 2018 he already ran six different research projects and by March 2018 his research group has grown to ten people.

— I’m absolutely thrilled by the expertise and energy of these scholars, says Tynkkynen. The individual projects complement each other and new insights and ideas are constantly born.

Eventhough it may prove difficult to directly influence Russian energy and environmental policies via academic research, the outputs might help us to realistically predict and prepare for what lies in the future. Tynkkynen also reminds that the choices made in Finnish politics can send strong signals to Russian energy sector and political leaders.   

— Even stronger effects could be achieved via the EU, notes Tynkkynen. So far Finland has not taken up the initiatives challenging the Russian hydrocarbon culture, but maybe we can change this.   

Visit the newly opened pages of Research Group on the Russian Environment to learn more about the research projects lead by Veli-Pekka Tynkkynen and about the team of young scholars working on them.