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Alexis Legigand

Master Student at MGIMO University, Multilateral Diplomacy

On top of the major shifts that are happening as a result of the pandemic and global movements against institutionalized racism, a new environmental threat reminds us that we need to remain extremely vigilant despite the current unstable socio-economic situation. As it has been largely covered by the media around the world, on May 29, 2020, an oil storage tank from Norilsk-Taimyr Energy's Thermal Power Plant, located in a remote Arctic region of Russia, started leaking. The industrial disaster has polluted the Ambarnaya river and possibly surrounding bodies of water, including Lake Pyasino and the Arctic Ocean. The latest update estimates that about 21.000 tons of oil have leaked and it will be extremely challenging to control the devastating effects of the catastrophe.

The delay between the start of the leak and the official reporting has caused significant controversy. Social networks had pulled the emergency alarm even before official notice was given, only two days later. In addition to the declared state of emergency, the situation has led to President Vladimir Putin taking drastic measures against the people directly or indirectly involved in the case. The media reports that Russia has opened a criminal case against the Mayor of Norilsk for alleged negligence.

In the search for answers, several experts have hinted at the possibility that the permafrost’s melting might have weakened the plant’s infrastructure, as the surface becomes more and more unstable due to global warming. It is worth mentioning that already in 2017, the Arctic Council (a high-level intergovernmental forum of which Russia is part of) published a report that warned about foundations in permafrost regions not being able to support the loads they used to. The findings suggested that measures needed to be taken to prevent potential incidents. However, Russian officials have ordered a review of structures built on unstable grounds in the region only after the oil spill occurred.

Many experts believe that today, we have lost the art of dialogue — it is important to restore it. For instance, the United States’ unilateral decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement shows that the dialogue seems to be broken and that the administration does not seem ready to create avenues for dialogue for environmental matters to gain the place they deserve. This is not an isolated case. However, one of the promising options to continue promoting these matters at the global stage would be to give more importance to environmental diplomacy in International Relations. As authors of the book Environment, Climate Change and International Relations argue, “there are good reasons to highlight environmental diplomacy as emblematic since this area of global governance will have a strong impact on the reorganisation of the global political economy facing climate change and other environmental threats.” In addition, they suggest that “the orchestrating role that diplomacy plays in these new, overlapping environmental governance fields is important to study and understand if we want to be able to explain how global politics unfolds.”

Cooperation between countries on environmental matters exists outside of international summits and forums, and it would be essential for countries to make it more apparent in the coming years. For instance, it appears that the European Union and Russia have been cooperating on a bilateral level on environmental questions since 1995. Since this period, and in addition to cooperation in the framework of conventions and UN bodies, the EU has provided support for a variety of projects that intend to improve environmental standards in Russia. While this type of cooperation seems promising, it has been rather discrete. By promoting environmental diplomacy, we could give more visibility to such initiatives and support the construction of a more proactive governance model. Russia could have a role to play in this matter, especially as the Chairman of the Council of the “Russian Carbon” Fund argues that Russian approaches toward environmental policies “are far from what could be called typical, and perhaps can even provide more flexibility than those of the EU.”


On top of the major shifts that are happening as a result of the pandemic and global movements against institutionalized racism, a new environmental threat reminds us that we need to remain extremely vigilant despite the current unstable socio-economic situation. As it has been largely covered by the media around the world, on May 29, 2020, an oil storage tank from Norilsk-Taimyr Energy's Thermal Power Plant, located in a remote Arctic region of Russia, started leaking. The industrial disaster has polluted the Ambarnaya river and possibly surrounding bodies of water, including Lake Pyasino and the Arctic Ocean. The latest update estimates that about 21.000 tons of oil have leaked and it will be extremely challenging to control the devastating effects of the catastrophe.

The delay between the start of the leak and the official reporting has caused significant controversy. Social networks had pulled the emergency alarm even before official notice was given, only two days later. In addition to the declared state of emergency, the situation has led to President Vladimir Putin taking drastic measures against the people directly or indirectly involved in the case. The media reports that Russia has opened a criminal case against the Mayor of Norilsk for alleged negligence.

In the search for answers, several experts have hinted at the possibility that the permafrost’s melting might have weakened the plant’s infrastructure, as the surface becomes more and more unstable due to global warming. It is worth mentioning that already in 2017, the Arctic Council (a high-level intergovernmental forum of which Russia is part of) published a report that warned about foundations in permafrost regions not being able to support the loads they used to. The findings suggested that measures needed to be taken to prevent potential incidents. However, Russian officials have ordered a review of structures built on unstable grounds in the region only after the oil spill occurred.

This example of industrial disaster reveals shortcomings when it comes to protecting natural resources. In particular, it emphasizes our inability to build a more proactive model of governance, despite some initiatives towards this end. Instead of being able to anticipate threats to the environment, we leave things for later until it is already too late. This, then, raises a number of questions: who is really to blame for the recent Arctic oil spill? Why are we not able to anticipate situations of environmental degradation despite the level of expertise that is available today? And what model of environmental governance is best suited to address patterns of negligence? This article explores how persistent problems of environmental negligence can be tackled more efficiently and how new approaches in governance can be the solution. The use of the Norilsk example is an attempt to put into question the current state of global governance since the list of ecological disasters that have occurred worldwide is extensive. Perhaps, a 2018 United Nations report provides some answers to these growing concerns. It identifies a number of deficiencies, such as a lack of clarity of environmental principles and effective enforcement mechanisms, leading decision-makers to remain passive.

Implementing Marine Management in the Arctic Ocean. RIAC and Polar Institute Report

In order to support the idea that our current system is grounded in a reactive model, it is possible to argue that the Norilsk catastrophe echoes the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill (or BP oil spill). It is seen as one of America’s biggest environmental disasters. The circumstances of the oil spill led a BP executive to be charged with hiding information from Congress, lying to enforcement officials and gross negligence. While it is true that the BP disaster was much larger in scale and in terms of damage to biodiversity than the Siberian one, we notice recurrent patterns of negligence that not only compromise efforts toward environmental protection but also discredit environmental values. The major problem is that whenever a polluting company causes environmental harm by largely ignoring (or neglecting) existing regulations, it creates an odd dynamic that makes it much harder to move away from this pattern.

Environmental negligence is an interesting aspect to analyze, especially if we consider the fact that we live in a world with a constant flow of information. Today, there exists a high level of expertise presented in reports developed by international organizations. These should provide guidance to states in their desire to move forward with environmental regulations. Even though such information does not provide countries with the necessary tools, the amount of information that is available today should allow states to build a more resilient governance framework to at least move in the right direction. Why, then, do we still observe recurrent patterns of environmental negligence worldwide? This question can be answered by looking deeper into the implications that the current model of global governance brings to the table.

The inability to address growing concerns in a timely manner despite having the information reveals possible failures in two areas that relate to global governance: 1) problems in how the information is communicated at different levels and 2) problems in organizational structures, resulting in a lack of consistency in decision making and responses. Many debates have taken place over the fragmented governance that is in place today for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, some experts believe that fragmented governance is the best possible option given the difference in capabilities and levels of receptivity of environmental matters between countries. For instance, in the context of international cooperation, Dr. Anton Galenovich, Chairman of the Council of the “Russian Carbon” Fund, argued that: “a key obstacle to the development of any Russia – EU climate policy collaboration seems to be a difference in critical approaches to the question of whether or not the perceived global climate change problem is serious enough to warrant intervention at such a significant level.” On the other hand, some are supportive of a more integrated overall architecture as “it may promise higher effectiveness in terms of solving the core problems in an issue area."

As the cases of oil spills have taught us, there is a significant problem in how the information is processed and used towards the benefits of environmental protection. Perhaps, it is possible to argue that fragmented environmental governance creates challenges when trying to set global environmental standards as countries are developing mechanisms based on their own capabilities. While there are undeniable benefits to fragmented governance such as a multitude of agreements, institutions and partnerships, it is worth emphasizing the inconsistencies in how responses are provided. Under a fragmented strategy, it is sometimes challenging to see with clarity the exact course of action that is taken — it leads to more dispersed and less organized initiatives both at the national and global levels.

A more unified environmental governance could actually help resolve some of the problems concerning the lack of cooperation and coordination since it intends to make relevant stakeholders work along a similar plan. One of the key features of an integrated model of governance is cooperation between states and private-sector actors in environmental-related decision making and enforcement processes. Thus, by working more closely, relevant stakeholders could enhance the exchange of information and ideas. In addition, through the increased interaction between actors, major avenues for discussions could be created.

Increasing the frequency of dialogue could help create more partnership opportunities and raise environmental awareness on a higher level. This perspective is both realistic and appealing, as in 2014, the United Nations Environment Program already suggested that “a very important aspect of integrated governance is the alignment of interests."

Many experts believe that today, we have lost the art of dialogue — it is important to restore it. For instance, the United States’ unilateral decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement shows that the dialogue seems to be broken and that the administration does not seem ready to create avenues for dialogue for environmental matters to gain the place they deserve. This is not an isolated case. However, one of the promising options to continue promoting these matters at the global stage would be to give more importance to environmental diplomacy in International Relations. As authors of the book Environment, Climate Change and International Relations argue, “there are good reasons to highlight environmental diplomacy as emblematic since this area of global governance will have a strong impact on the reorganisation of the global political economy facing climate change and other environmental threats.” In addition, they suggest that “the orchestrating role that diplomacy plays in these new, overlapping environmental governance fields is important to study and understand if we want to be able to explain how global politics unfolds.”

Cooperation between countries on environmental matters exists outside of international summits and forums, and it would be essential for countries to make it more apparent in the coming years. For instance, it appears that the European Union and Russia have been cooperating on a bilateral level on environmental questions since 1995. Since this period, and in addition to cooperation in the framework of conventions and UN bodies, the EU has provided support for a variety of projects that intend to improve environmental standards in Russia. While this type of cooperation seems promising, it has been rather discrete. By promoting environmental diplomacy, we could give more visibility to such initiatives and support the construction of a more proactive governance model. Russia could have a role to play in this matter, especially as the Chairman of the Council of the “Russian Carbon” Fund argues that Russian approaches toward environmental policies “are far from what could be called typical, and perhaps can even provide more flexibility than those of the EU.”


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