A Russian island north of Japan has become a testing ground for Moscow's efforts to reconcile its prized fossil fuel industry with the need to do something about climate change.
More than two-thirds of Sakhalin Island is forested. With the Kremlin’s blessing, authorities there have set an ambitious goal of making the island — Russia's largest — carbon neutral by 2025.
Tree growth will absorb as much planet-warming carbon dioxide as the island's half-million residents and its businesses produce, an idea the Russian government 6500 kilometres to the west in Moscow hopes to apply to the whole country, which has more forested area than any other nation.
“The economic structure of Sakhalin and the large share of forestland in the territory and carbon balance distribution reflect the general situation in Russia,” said Dinara Gershinkova, an adviser to Sakhalin's governor on climate and sustainable development.
“So the results of the experiment in Sakhalin will be representative and applicable to the whole Russian Federation.”
The plan reflects a marked change of mood in Russia on climate change.
President Vladimir Putin joked about global warming in 2003, saying that Russians would be able to “spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would increase” if it continued.
Last year, he acknowledged that climate change “requires real actions and way more attention,” and he has sought to position the world's biggest fossil fuel exporter as a leader in the fight against global warming.
The country's vast forests are key to this idea.
“By aiming to build a carbon-neutral economy by no later than 2060, Russia is relying, among other things, on the unique resource of forest ecosystems available to us, and their significant capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen," Putin said in a video address November 2 to the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
"After all, our country accounts for around 20 per cent of the world’s forestland.”
Scientists say that natural forms of removing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere will indeed play a key role in tackling global warming.
Many of the countries at the climate summit rely on some form of absorbing emissions to achieve their targets of being “net zero” by 2050 — that is, emitting only as much greenhouse gas as can be captured again by natural or artificial means.