Issue 2/2018

“Opposing coal is politically dangerous”

Interviewed by Friederike Meier, 16 Apr 18
The anti-coal movement has reached Russia, says environmental activist Vladimir Slivyak. The country’s government is not happy.

new energy: Mr Slivyak, your organisation protests against coal-fired energy generation in Russia. Is the Russian anticoal movement going well?

Vladimir Slivyak: Until a few years ago, there was virtually no one protesting against coal in Russia. Then five years ago we thought to ourselves: the rest of the world is trying to put an end to coal. It’s unacceptable that Russia, the world’s third largest exporter of black coal, is simply not interested. And so far, we are the only organisation to have taken a stance against coal.

ne: Why is that?

Slivyak: Opposing coal is politically dangerous, because it is backed by the government. There is a coal development strategy in place under which production is to rise by almost 50 percent by 2030. Russia is very much committed to fossil fuels, and is economically dependent on oil and gas exports.

ne: What form do your protests take?

Slivyak: We have given people in coal regions reliable information on the health and environmental impact of coal. We have tried to establish a network to bring together activists from the various regions. We have been most active in the Kuznetsk Basin in Siberia. This is Russia’s largest black coal region and the source of almost 60 percent of Russian coal. Coal is the area’s only form of economic activity, so the population is highly dependent on it for income. This is one of the reasons why there have been no protests so far. But at the same time, coal mining is an environmental disaster in the Kuznetsk Basin, affecting countless people. The spoil tips it creates are loaded with pollutants, and the strong winds in the region carry the dust to agricultural land. Whatever crops people grow are covered in dust. There is a relatively high mortality rate in the region, as well as a higher incidence of birth defects. The local population is aware of the health risks, but many believe the government propaganda that says: “You can only survive with coal, there is nothing else.” Of course this isn’t true. There are obviously opportunities for the development of renewables and the agricultural sector.

ne: Have your networking efforts been successful?

Slivyak: Yes. Last year we had a major breakthrough. For the first time in our country’s history, dozens of protests were held in various villages, as well as a joint demonstration involving 500 people in the city of Novokuznetsk. That is a lot for somewhere where it is dangerous to take part in protests. Just last week, demonstrations involving 200 people were held in several villages, in one case blocking access to a mine. A few years ago this would have been unthinkable, but now it is becoming normal. Most of these protests were self-organised.

ne: How are the Russian authorities reacting to the protests?

Slivyak: The local government is putting pressure on some of the activists. The problem is that regional governments are appointed by Moscow, and can be fired by Moscow too. If there are protests in a region, that means that the governor is not doing their job properly, so the local governments will do anything they can to suppress the protests.

ne: Are you optimistic about the future anyway?

Slivyak: Yes, because the movement has grown very quickly so far – and not just in the Kuznetsk Basin, but in the Far East too. Thousands of people often gather there to protest against the loading of coal onto ships for transport to Asian countries. Many people in the region suffer from the effects of the coal dust this causes. I think there is a chance that the movement will continue to grow and really gain momentum

ne: Has the Paris climate agreement made any difference to Russia’s official position?

Slivyak: No. There has been no progress in terms of climate legislation since Russia signed the agreement. Russia’s climate target under the Paris agreement on climate change consists in cutting emissions by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels. At the moment we are around 30 percent below those levels, so emissions can still rise without jeopardising the target. But the agreement hasn’t even been ratified yet. The government claims that the ratification process is underway, and could be completed in 2019. There is no guarantee that this will happen, though.

ne: What would have to happen in the world for the Russian government to commit to climate action?

Slivyak: I don’t think that’s possible with the people currently in power in Russia. Their background is in the secret service or the army. You can’t really expect them to understand issues like climate change or democracy. But maybe a miracle will happen and something will change.

ne: What are your predictions for this year?

Slivyak: The local government in the Kuznetsk Basin will try very hard to destroy the movement. Either the anti-coal movement or the local government will survive. We will find out which this year.

Vladimir Slivyak

is co-chair of Ecodefense, one of Russia’s oldest environmental bodies. In the past, the NGO was mainly devoted to protesting against nuclear power. In 2014 it was classified as a “foreign agent” by the government. Slivyak has been with the organisation since it was founded in 1989.

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