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Analysis & Opinion
14.03.11 A Green Revolution
By Svetlana Kononova

From forest fires and abnormal heat in summer to ice storms in winter, the weather in Russia continues to complicate the lives of its citizens. Ecologists say forest fires are expected again this summer, but despite these alarming trends it seems that only Russia’s small middle class is interested in improving the situation and developing a “green economy.”

In Western Europe a “green economy” has been actively developed due partly to a lack of energy resources. Forced to buy oil and gas abroad, the governments of Western European countries started to develop energy-saving and other green technologies several decades ago to decrease their dependence on foreign energy suppliers. In Asia other factors have lead to an “ecological boom.” For example in China, the rapid development of green technologies is ascribed to the country’s dependence on the demand for its domestically produced goods abroad.

However, Russia follows its own course. “The global green economy develops due to competition on the world market. Countries that export consumer goods benefit as long as their goods meet ecological standards. But Russia is in a different position because most of its exports are raw materials, and not final products,” said Evgeny Shvarts, the director of conservation policy at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Russia.

The sale of raw materials is still a very profitable business in Russia, which makes it more important than trying to preserve nature. “For example, in the United States and in many EU countries there are laws that presuppose punishment for companies selling illegally felled wood. It really works because nobody wants to be fined and to risk their reputation. But Russia doesn’t have such a law. Therefore, unlawfully felled wood is being sold abroad. The volume of this market is estimated at billions of dollars,” Shvarts said.

However, while the state and large corporations share profits from the export of raw materials, green technologies in Russia develop because the end consumers demand them. Paradoxically, the reason for such “modernization” is often technological backwardness. This is clearly illustrated by an inchoate market for alternative energy sources in the country. “Households are interested in technologies that decrease their energy expenses much more than companies, which can afford to buy the best modern equipment and recover the costs quickly. The most in demand are technologies providing heat and hot water from alternative energy sources, such as heat pumps and solar panels,” said Irina Korsakova, a spokesperson for EnergyEco, a firm that specializes in technical equipment for autonomous energy systems. “In many cases families buy or build a home and notice that it is technically impossible to supply it with gas. The engineering infrastructure of most small towns and villages in Russia is absolutely undeveloped. So they turn to alternative energy technologies,” she added.

Korsakova believes that the market for alternative energy technologies in Russia is very promising, but complains about the lack of governmental support. “In Western Europe people who use alternative energy sources receive some benefits from the state, such as tax breaks or cheap loans for equipment. But unfortunately, this practice doesn’t exist in Russia. Moreover, there is an acute lack of information. Most people simply don’t know about alternative energy technologies,” she said.

Experts say there are few people in Russia who use “green technologies” in everyday life, but this number is growing. Most people who lead an eco-friendly lifestyle in Russia are highly-educated. They have middle-class or high incomes, travel a lot and have a cosmopolitan mindset. “While ten years ago, people who built homes for themselves were only interested in prices, now their priorities have changed. They value the environment in which they live. They prefer homes made from natural materials: wood, thermal insulation from fleece and no chemical or synthetic materials at all,” said Dmitry Abramov, the CEO of the GarantStroy building company.

Another trend is the growing popularity of environmental assessment of real estate. “When we started work in Russia in 2002, environmental assessment was exotic. Only large Western companies applied for it. But now the situation has changed. The number of assessment requests has increased ten times since then,” said Nikolay Krivozertsev, the business development director at EcoStandard, which works in the field of ecological consulting.

Most clients request an environmental assessment of their homes or flats when they face some problem – feeling unwell or suffering from an allergy. But there is a new group of people who believe that checking property before buying it is necessary. “These people want to protect themselves when they buy real estate. For them requesting an environmental assessment is as much of a must as regular workouts. And this group is growing every year,” Krivozertsev said.

Experts say that such an attitude toward real estate in Russia stems from necessity, and is not just a popular trend. In big cities about 70 percent of buildings don’t meet ecological standards. The most common problems are noise, chemical pollution and electromagnetic fields.

Another characteristic of Russian eco-friendly lifestyle followers is that they value their families and care about the future of their children. “Most people who buy organic food in Russia are parents of small children. They want to provide their children with the best, including foodstuffs without coloring or preservatives, hormones or chemicals,” said Marina Goldinberg, a marketing director at the BioMarket organic retail chain. Goldinberg pointed out increased interest in eco-friendly lifestyles in Russia as well. “When we opened our first store in 2006, only a few people knew what organic food was. But now there are organic food departments at many big supermarkets. And sales are growing every year,” she said.

A green revolution in Russia has definitely started, but for now it is only confined to big cities because millions of people with relatively high incomes live there. Green technologies are in demand in Moscow, St. Petersburg and in a few Siberian cities, but the provinces are still not interested. A poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) found that only 16 percent of Russians find environmental issues important.
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