The Environmental Outlook in Russia

January 1999

This paper was produced by the National Intelligence Council, Chairman, and the DCI Environmental Center, Director. It was prepared under the auspices of the National Intelligence Officer for Economics and Global Issues, and the National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology, and the National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia.

Key Judgments

Russia during the next decade will be unable to deal effectively with the formidable environmental challenges posed by decades of Soviet and post-Soviet environmental mismanagement and recurring economic crises. Although the prolonged contraction in economic activity has resulted in significant drops in most pollution categories, substantial environmental improvement will depend on an array of socioeconomic, institutional, and cultural changes--facilitated by international engagement--that will only begin to develop sporadically and close to the end of our 10-year time frame at the earliest. Major progress is decades away.

Among Russia's most important environmental problems:

Environmental problems are harming both the health of Russia's citizens and the economy:

Russia's environmental problems also pose substantial threats to other regions and are likely to continue to do so during the next decade:

Although Russian Government officials decry the economic and social costs of environmental degradation, they lack the commitment, resources, and organizational capacity to address environmental problems:

Russia is widely expected to be the major financial beneficiary of the carbon-trading scheme associated with the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, mainly because the sharp decline in Russian economic activity has reduced emissions nearly 30 percent below the target level Russia set for the period 2008-12. Under the Protocol, countries exceeding their targeted cuts will be able to sell emission-reduction credits to those unable to meet their targets:

Even minor improvements in Russia's environment during the next few years will require continued international pressure, aid, management expertise, and foreign investment to compensate for Russian shortcomings, but any government shift toward greater state control of the economy to deal with the ongoing economic crisis would jeopardize at least some of this assistance:

The outlook for more sustained environmental progress over the long term will depend less on foreign assistance and more on whether Russian leaders can muster the courage and skill to implement reforms leading to sound economic growth, greater governmental accountability, and increased public political involvement:

Although at least some of these positive indicators may begin to appear near the end of our 10-year time frame, it will probably take decades for Russians to garner the will and the wherewithal to deal with their environmental problems, especially if neo-Communist or nationalist forces come to power and pursue decidedly xenophobic and antireformist policies.

Figure 1
Key Environmental Problem Areas in Russia


Scope of Environmental Challenges

Russian Government officials candidly acknowledge that the country has many environmental problems, often using words such as "catastrophe" and "crisis" to describe the scale of the challenge.

Some of the problems are primarily a legacy of Russia's Soviet past. Among the factors most responsible for environmental destruction:

Other Russian environmental problems are more closely associated with the country's political and economic transition during the 1990s, particularly its halting move from a command to a free market economy:

Russia's leading environmental concern is water pollution. Municipalities are the main source of pollution, followed by industry and agriculture. Russian and foreign experts estimate that less than one-half of Russia's population has access to safe drinking water. Sixty-nine percent of the nation's wastewater treatment systems lack sufficient capacity. Only 13 percent of reported wastewater flows were treated to meet Russia's relatively high-quality water standards in 1996, the latest period for which we have reporting. According to the Russian Government, "practically all" of the water courses in the Volga watershed--an area that covers two-thirds of European Russia--do not meet Russian standards.

Russia's three military plutonium production sites--Chelyabinsk-65 (often referred to as Mayak) in the southern Urals region, and Tomsk-7 and Krasnoyarsk-26 in southwestern Siberia--have caused extensive contamination of Russian waterways:

Water pollution from municipal sources is likely to increase during the next decade as independent households and the services sector place additional burdens on municipal sewage systems. When industrial production recovers, wastewater discharges also will reverse their downward trend. Meanwhile, funding shortages will constrain operations, maintenance, and new investment in drinking water, sewerage, and wastewater treatment systems. They also will limit any efforts to deal with nuclear contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies.

Poor air quality is almost as serious a problem as water pollution. In 1996 over 200 cities in Russia often exceeded the levels prescribed by Russian health standards for annual concentrations of at least one pollutant, according to a Russian government report. Eight cities exceeded health standards for three or more pollutants, and they did so by at least a factor of 10. In comparison, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, air pollution levels in the Los Angeles area, which has the worst overall air quality in the United States, rarely exceed US standards--which are similar to Russia's--by a factor of more than 1.5.

Figure 2
Sources of Russian Water Pollution by Volume of Effluent

Although industries continue to pollute the air, emissions from cars and trucks--lead, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides--cause the majority of air pollution. In Moscow, for example, 87 percent of air pollution is attributable to vehicle emissions.

Air quality is likely to worsen as the number of vehicles--many of which are aging and lack adequate pollution controls--increases. From 1991 to 1997, car registrations increased nationwide by 176 percent. The number of cars in Moscow during the same period jumped 250 percent to 2 million. Fuel quality will add to the problem--only half the gasoline produced in Russia is unleaded and, in heavily congested areas, lead concentrations often reach at least four times the US air quality standard.

Figure 3
Reported Russian Industrial Output and Air Pollution Emissions

Solid and hazardous wastes present acute threats to the land and are likely to continue to do so:

Figure 4
Level of Pollutants in the Air in Russia

Environmental Conditions Poor Throughout the Former Soviet Union

Environmental conditions generally are poor throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU), and all states lack the commitment, institutional capacity, and funds to deal with them, according to a study sponsored by the DCI Environmental Center:

Shortcomings common throughout the FSU hamper efforts to deal with environmental problems. These shortcomings include:

Figure 5
Sources of Water Pollution in Russia, 1995

Figure 6
Sources of Air Pollution in Russia, 1995

Costs of Environmental Degradation

Russia's pervasive water, air, and land pollution is harming both the health of Russia's citizens and the economy. Although total costs are difficult to calculate because of inadequate economic data, the contributing impact of lifestyle factors such as poor diet and smoking, and poor health delivery systems, a variety of official and private studies indicate environmental degradation is taking a heavy toll.

Figure 7
Nikel' Area, Kola Peninsula, Russia Landsat Imagery, July 1993

Figure 8
Distribution of Russian Radioactive Contamination of the Environment

Figure 9
Comparison of US and Russian Nuclear Contamination of the Environmenta

Health Impact
Environmentally related health problems in Russia are extensive and growing, adding to adult and infant mortality rates that have risen substantially over the past decade:

Environment-related health problems also appear to be growing. The Defense Intelligence Agency's Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center (AFMIC) reports that cases of waterborne diseases--such as dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and viral hepatitis A and E--have risen substantially during the past decade. The annual incidence of some, such as dysentery, has increased as much as 25 percent in some years, and there have been a series of dysentery and cholera epidemics in cities such as St. Petersburg in recent years. AFMIC also cites a report by Russian scientists that the number of cases of environmentally related birth defects also is on the increase.

The Russian public has taken note of the adverse impact of environmental degradation on its health. In one public opinion survey, cited in a 1994 study by B. I. Kochurov sponsored by the National Council for Soviet and East European Research, 80 percent of respondents associated a decline in their health with pollution, and 68 percent believed pollution affected their children's health.

Figure 10
Forest Cutting Activities in the Far East

Economic Impact
Environmental pollution has had a substantially negative impact on Russia's economy. It contributes to health-related budgetary strains, reduces labor productivity, curbs tourism and investment, and lowers the yield of natural resources. Environmentally linked illnesses also limit the military manpower pool:

Although we have insufficient information to determine with confidence the economic impact of environmental problems, a team of senior Russian environmental economists and geographers have pegged total losses from environmental degradation at 10 to 12 percent of GDP. This is similar to estimated losses in East European states, but substantially more than the 1 to 2 percent of GDP lost because of environmental degradation in developed states.

Regional and Global Impact
Russia's environmental problems will continue to pose substantial threats to neighboring regions and to the world during the next decade:

The Kyoto Protocol and Russia's Boreal Forest

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 UN Framework on Climate Change, Russia pledged that, in the target period of 2008 to 2012, its emissions of six greenhouse gases would not exceed 1990 levels. Because of Russia's economic downturn, carbon emissions today are 25 to 30 percent below this target and are likely to remain below the target through 2012. Russia, therefore, will not be subject to potential mandatory mitigation measures. Russian and most foreign officials and experts, moreover, believe that Russia will be the direct beneficiary of the Protocol's proposed carbon-trading scheme, whereby developed countries that have exceeded their targeted cuts can sell emission reduction credits to those that are having difficulty meeting their targets. The Russian Ministry of Economics claims Moscow could earn as much as $18 billion by 2005 if a trading scheme is set up soon.

Even if a sustained economic recovery materializes and substantially increases Russian emissions, Russian officials are convinced that Russia's extensive boreal forest cover will act as a major carbon absorber that will earn them substantial revenues well beyond the 2008-12 period if effectively managed. According to a MEDEA study sponsored by the National Intelligence Council, however, current carbon flow models contain significant uncertainties, and it is not clear whether Russia's boreal forest cover is a net absorber or emitter of atmospheric carbon (see annex).

Limited Impact of Russian Remediation Efforts

Russian Government and business leaders will not be able to make more than limited environmental progress during the next decade, and sustained improvement is probably decades away, especially if the neo-Communists or nationalists come to power and curb foreign investments and free market reforms. Prolonged economic problems will limit the availability of funding for the environment from both government and private sectors. Continued dependence on pollution-intensive extractive industries and unregulated black-market and organized crime activities also will hamper government and private efforts to clean up the environment. The Russian public will continue to accord priority to immediate socioeconomic needs over environmental improvement.

Table 1
Russian Greenhouse Gas
Emission Projections


The lower number represents the probable
scenario, the higher number represents a
high-growth scenario.

Index: 1990=100a

Carbon dioxide 75/78 81/90
Methane 75/80 63/69
Source: Russian Hydrometeorology and
Environmental Monitoring Service

aEmissions for 2000 are significantly lower
than 1990 because of the drop in industrial
activity following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Government Focusing on Economy
Russian political leaders and bureaucrats lack the commitment, resources, and organizational capabilities to address environmental issues effectively, according to a 1997 study by Demosthenes James Peterson written under the auspices of the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research. Some features of the government's latest economic plan, such as its support for ailing and highly polluting state enterprises, will further complicate environmental cleanup if they are implemented:

Government Institutions Charged With Environmental Protection

Russia has an extensive bureaucracy devoted to environmental protection and natural resources management:

Two organizations have primary responsibility for nuclear oversight. The Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) is responsible for nuclear waste generated at civilian nuclear power plants and at nuclear weapons facilities. The State Service for Atomic and Radiation Safety (Gosatomnadzor) establishes all requirements on the handling and disposal of radioactive material. Both are insufficiently funded to enforce their regulations.

Plethora of Federal Environment-Related Legislation 1991-98


Land Code

Law on Public Health

Law on Land Use Fees

Law on Environmental Protection


Framework Convention on Climate Change


Law on Environmental Impact Assessment

Law on Continental Shelf of the Russian Federation

Forest Code

Water Code

Law on Use of Atomic Energy

Law on Nature Reserves

Law on Protection and Use of Fauna

Law on Subsurface Resources

Ratification of the Convention on Biodiversity

Ratification of the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste


Law on the Radiation Safety of the Population

Law on Land Improvement


Law on Solid and Industrial Waste

Private Sector Focusing on Survival and Profits
Economic transition-related pressures--including the reduction of state subsidies, high interest rates, poor governmental regulation, and pressures to become profitable--are causing most private firms to cut their environmental programs. Such pressures also are fueling completely unregulated black-market economic activities that are harming the environment:

Table 2
Huge Drop in New Pollution Control
Equipment Installed

 Index: 1976-80=100
  1976-80 1981-85 1986-90 1991-95 
Wastewater treatment 100 63 53 21
Industrial water recirculation 100 144 139 36
Smokestack scrubbers 100 98 110 31
Source: Russian Committee for
Environmental Protection

Environmental Activism Waning
Although several of Russia's largest nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--the Socio-Ecological Union, Ecopress, and the Russian Green Party, for example--continue to have a formal advisory role in government councils, the effectiveness of Russia's environmental NGOs has waned since the early 1990s:

New Environmental Secrecy Measures

The Yel'tsin administration in October 1997 and January 1998 made broad new categories of environmentally related information subject to secret classification. These include defense-related mete- orological, geological, and cartographic work; the surveying and production of precious minerals; and the use of land and water by security services. The Yel'tsin administration also has instituted policies mandating that all information pertaining to military nuclear facilities be classified state secrets in response to damaging revelations about environmental problems by former military officers.

International Assistance and Investment Offer Some Hope

Given the renewed economic turmoil in Russia, even minor environmental improvements during the next few years will require international pressure, aid, management expertise, and foreign investment. These will compensate to some extent for Russia's lack of the capital, institutional capacity, and political will to devise and implement an effective environmental action program, but any government shift toward greater state involvement in the economy to deal with the ongoing economic crisis would jeopardize at least some prospective foreign aid and investment.

The Positive Impact of Foreign Aid
Although Russia is not a candidate for European Union (EU) membership like many East European countries, and therefore will not be under the same intense pressure to improve its environmental performance in preparation for EU membership, it is receiving considerable international advice and assistance on its environmental efforts. The World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), EU, and environmental NGOs have provided Russia with substantial aid, technical training, and assistance on policy priorities, reform, institution-building, and environmental legislation:

The Environmental Working Group of the US-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation is a major bilateral channel through which the United States engages Russia on environmental issues (see figure 11).

The Greening Effect of Foreign Investment
Although much of the $10 billion invested in Russian from 1989 to 1997 has focused on pollution-intensive sectors such as oil, logging, and consumer goods, most multinational corporations employ more efficient equipment and technology and generally use more "environmentally friendly" practices than Russian firms, according to another 1997 study by Peterson produced under the auspices of the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research:

Moreover, multinational corporations that observe environmental standards are likely to press the Russian Government to enforce environmental regulations to prevent Russian competitor firms from gaining a cost advantage.

How Much Would Cleanup Cost?

The costs of substantially reducing Russia's environmental pollution will be prohibitively high, given Moscow's chronic fiscal problems. For example:

The cost of raising the nuclear safety levels to official standards for the entire former Soviet Union, most of which would have to be borne by Russia, would be about $26 billion, according to Russian estimates.

But Russian Reforms and Public Support Needed

The outlook for substantial environmental progress over the longer term will depend less on foreign help and more on whether Russian leaders--regardless of political orientation--muster the courage and skill to implement reforms that boost investor confidence and fuel the economic growth needed to fund environmental institution-building and improvements. It also will depend on the growth of government institutional capacity and accountability and on whether the Russian public overcomes its political apathy and becomes more focused on environmental issues. At best, such trends may begin to appear toward the end of our 10-year time frame at the earliest, but major progress is probably decades away, especially if neo-Communist or nationalist forces come to power and pursue decidedly xenophobic and antireformist policies that curtail foreign aid and investment and limit economic recovery.

Retaining the support of the international financial community, while also boosting direct and equity investment, will require reducing the uncertainties related to fiscal and tax policy, property ownership, and corporate governance:

Tax and other incentives would encourage purchase of new plant and equipment, which would lower industry's use of energy and cut pollution:

Further government cuts in subsidies for industrial production, fertilizers, and pesticides would prompt heavy industry and mining firms increasingly to use more efficient technologies and to adopt more environmentally friendly practices:

Figure 11
United States--Russia Environmental Working Group

Figure 12
Value of Modern Technology: Reduction in Projected Russian Emissions With New Equipment Compliant With EU Standards

Business incentives also could help Russia move away from using high carbon-emitting fuels--probably with little dislocation. Russia has about one-third of the world's natural gas reserves and most industry experts estimatethat gas prices will remain low for the next decade:

Should Russia experience a prolonged economic recovery that satisfies basic needs such as jobs and housing, Russians would be inclined to focus more than in the past on quality-of-life issues such as the environment--particularly its impact on public health. Neither the public nor environmental NGOs would be likely to overcome their current apathy and lobby actively for environmental causes, however, unless Russian leaders become more responsive to public opinion in general and environmentalists conclude that activism can have an impact.

Figure 13
Russian Vegetation and the Extent of the Boreal Forest (U)


Carbon Exchange and the Role of the Russian Boreal Forest

MEDEA has examined the role of the Russian boreal forestand its relationship to carbon issues in the context of the Environmental Working Group of the US-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technical Cooperation and the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Climate Change Convention. MEDEA's efforts included reviewing the state of knowledge of the Russian boreal forest region and assessing the uncertainties in estimating the rates of carbon exchange between terrestrial and atmospheric systems.

The boreal forests of the world are predominantly coniferous woodlands occupying a continuous zone around the world at northern latitudes just south of the Arctic tundra zone. In the boreal forest, aboveground vegetation is dominated by species of spruce, fir, pine, and larch, that can withstand cold and harsh conditions most of the year. Much of the forest area is underlain by permafrost and wetland areas, called peatlands.

Approximately two-thirds of all boreal forests are located in Russia. The Russian Federal Forest Service (FFS) manages 1,110 million hectares 2 (Mha) of land area, of which 886 Mha is forest land, with 763 Mha actually covered by trees.

Russia's boreal forest region is one of the largest single reservoirs of carbon in the world, storing more than one-fifth of carbon found in all terrestrial biomes. This carbon pool is 20 percent larger than that found in temperate and tropical forests combined. The soils and peat contain about 80 to 90 percent of the carbon. (See figure 14.)

Russian scientists and foresters claim that the Russian boreal forest can be managed for the purpose of increasing carbon removal from the atmosphere, arguing that the current carbon removal rate is well below its potential:

Figure 14
Storage of Carbon in the Russian Boreal Forest

Sink or Source?

Opinions in the scientific community differ about whether Russia's boreal forest is acting as a net sink (absorber) or source (emitter) of atmospheric carbon:

MEDEA, however, after reviewing the Russian studies, believes that it is extremely difficult to conclude that the Russian boreal forest functions either as a net source or net sink of atmospheric carbon. In particular, MEDEA believes that the extent of disturbance to the boreal forest region because of fire, insect infestation, and logging is significantly underestimated. MEDEA also is skeptical of the Russian studies' conclusions because of uncertainties in Russian models that estimate the amount of carbon in the soil and the rate that it cycles to the atmosphere.

MEDEA believes that, during the next decade, use of multiresolution imagery from civil and national security systems and field data can reduce scientific uncertainties about the role of the boreal region in atmospheric carbon control. Multistaged sampling offers a means to map and quantify Russian boreal forest land cover change, carbon-related forest parameters, permafrost dynamics, and the frequency and significance of disturbances.


(1) MEDEA is a group of about 40 US environmental and global change scientists. It is an outgrowth of a CIA-sponsored Environmental Task Force formed in 1992 to use classified systems to examine key environmental questions.

(2) 1 hectare = 10,000 m2 = 2.471 acres. (U)

(3) The total fossil fuel emissions from the Russian Federation in 1990 was 654 million tons of carbon.

Source: National Intelligence Council