Sakhalin Climate Goals: Russia’s Ambition Meets Harsh Reality
In 2021, the Russian government launched an ambitious climate experiment on Sakhalin Island, a remote territory in the Pacific Ocean close to Japan. Officials planned to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2025. This goal hinged on transitioning Sakhalin’s energy to renewable sources, shifting transportation to eco-friendly fuels, and moving from coal boilers to gas. Spoiler alert: success seems unlikely for now.
Drawing from the in-depth coverage by Smola, an independent environmental media, let’s explore the challenging quest of Sakhalin Island towards carbon neutrality.
Current Environmental Balance
Even before the experiment, Sakhalin had a modest gap between its greenhouse gas emissions and absorption—around 2 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year (13.7 million tons emitted versus 11.7 million absorbed in 2021). The island’s rich forest ecosystems primarily maintained this balance.
However, realising this potential has become increasingly complex, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Oil and Gas
Before the war in Ukraine, international companies such as ExxonMobil and Sakhalin Energy—backed by Shell, Mitsui, and Mitsubishi—played pivotal roles in the region. Their contributions ranged from infrastructure development to supporting indigenous populations and environmental protection initiatives.
Now, these assets have fallen into the hands of state-run companies like Rosneft and Gazprom. These firms prioritise ramping up fossil fuel production, starkly contradicting the island’s climate goals. The prevalent practice of flaring natural gas at oil fields continues, significantly contributing to atmospheric pollution.
Currently, renewables contribute a mere 1-2 per cent of Sakhalin’s energy. By 2025, this figure was hoped to reach 28 per cent, a target that now appears overly optimistic. The development of wind power, initially planned in cooperation with foreign firms like Denmark’s Vestas and the Netherlands’ Lagerwey, faces setbacks. Solar energy fares slightly better, with Russian company Hevel producing solar panels.
The experiment also envisaged developing hydrogen technologies in collaboration with France’s Air Liquide, which, like others, withdrew from Russian projects in September 2022.
The island’s climate program emphasises waste management, aiming for 60 per cent of the region’s garbage to be sorted by the end of 2025. However, old landfills remain operational, and a new waste sorting complex struggles to handle the current volume of trash, with toxic leachate reportedly seeping into a regional nature reserve.
The plan calls for over 98,000 vehicles to switch to gas by 2025. In the past three years, only around 4,300 have made the shift. The region’s goal of 10,000 electric cars by the end of 2025 seems far-fetched, with only 366 electric and 717 hybrid vehicles currently registered.
Awareness of this climate experiment among the local population remains low. Even in Sakhalin’s largest city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, few are informed about the goal of carbon neutrality and the development of renewable energy sources.
Sakhalin’s quest for carbon neutrality, thwarted by the repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is emblematic of a larger global challenge. This situation illustrates how geopolitical conflicts can derail environmental efforts, particularly in regions reliant on fossil fuels.
Sakhalin’s experience serves as a reminder of the urgent need for global cooperation in addressing climate change. Governments must prioritise the planet’s future over short-term gains and conflicts for elusive causes.
Illustration: Elia Kabanov feat. MidJourney.