Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why is Russia getting greener?

News out of Russia is that it is one of the few G20 countries that are actually getting greener. Since 1990 greenhouse gas emissions are down by over a third. Before we all celebrate that Putin and his boys are green guardians, most of the reduction is a result of decreased economic activity after the fall of the soviet empire. Of late though the Russian economy has been growing and this resource rich country that spans two continents will again begin to emit increasing amounts of carbon dioxide as living standards improve, more personal vehicles are bought, and Muscovites give up on living like the Honeymooners and emulate the Brady Bunch lifestyle. Perhaps they won’t have eight kids in a household though. The population of Russia is in decline and is now some six million less than a decade ago and the trend continues with a high death rate and an extremely low birth rate.

Russian men drink ethanol at an amazingly alarming rate and this is the dominant reason for a high death rate in their country. Life expectancy for Russian men is only 59 years. For women life expectancy is 72 years. The Russian population is now 142 million and could go as low as 110 million in 2050. In 1939 before the start of world war two the population of the Russian part of the Soviet Union was also 110 million. While the folks in the USA guzzle ethanol in their vehicles to the tune of some 30 gallons a year, the men in Russia think of their bodies as a Chevrolet and guzzle an equal amount of booze in a year. If only alcohol could kill off Clunkers as fast as men we may have a greener world.

While the Russians may have inadvertently become green by closing inefficient state owned heavy industries after the collapse of communism and by loosing population, there is in fact a lesson that should be learned here. These two reasons for the lowering of the environmental footprint of mankind are indeed where the focus of all our attention should be placed. The population explosion is by far the biggest cause of the degradation of the environment. The second is that a country such as China produces half of the steel in the world using primitive steel making techniques that employ coal and are reminiscent of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in the 1930s. If the steel industry is to rationalize and clean up, countries such as Australia and Brazil should produce more than half of the worlds steel supply. Australia has vast iron ore and natural gas reserves and producing direct reduced iron in Australia would yield steel with a third less carbon emissions. Brazil is blessed with vast and excellent grade iron ore. Its neighbor Bolivia has abundant natural gas. These two could combine to form a low cost, low emission steel manufacturer.

Iran and Russia are also blessed with vast natural gas reserves. Even if Iran developed its economy to the point where each citizen consumes as much electricity as each citizen of the USA, Iran has sufficient natural gas to generate electricity for over 200 years. Iran has a population of 66 million and this country has seen its population grow massively from only 17 million in 1950. They are not the only country placing an increased burden on the planet, the USA has essentially doubled its population since 1950. We are told that increased education leads to increased living standards and decreased population growth. The USA should also lead by example and educate it citizens to understand the implications of the suburban lifestyle that Hollywood has glorified to audiences around the world. Perhaps then the Iranians will follow in the footsteps of their Russian friends to the north and slow their population growth and enjoy life albeit shortened by shouting Nasdrovia .