When exactly will the forest end? I had this thought 30-odd years ago while crossing the Russian taiga on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk. For hours and then days, the massive boreal aggregation of pines and firs, hemlocks and spruces strobed past the train’s windows — a veritable sea of green that seemed to defy all boundaries of what I imagined an intact ecosystem looked like.
I thought again of the endless-seeming taiga this month as Russia embarked on an endless-seeming war. With sanctions effectively severing the country from the Western financial system there is a real risk that it will lean even more heavily on its forests. And if this happens, Russia could quickly transform itself from a carbon sink into a planet toaster.
At more than 12 million square kilometers, The Russian taiga is nearly double the size of the Amazon.
That process is already beginning with Russian oil. Before the war, oil accounted for around half of the country’s exports to the tune of $340 billion. With 106 billion barrels still in the ground this reserve will increasingly be Russia’s most important avenue to non-ruble currency. China, the energy-thirsty giant next door, is surely eyeing this possibility. India, too, is now in negotiations with the Putin government to expand its Russian crude import.
But even more troubling than an accelerated burning up of Russia’s oil reserves is the specter of the country cashing out its forests. During the same month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a paper in the journal Nature reported that the Amazon rain forest was reaching a critical “tipping point” and could soon spiral down into a dried out savannah. At more than 12 million square kilometers, The Russian taiga is nearly double the size of the Amazon. Even before the war in Ukraine began, a devastating war against the taiga was in progress. 12 million hectares of it are being cut down every year. In a world where Russia’s supplies China with half of its wood, it’s likely we’ll see even more of the taiga go into Chinese sawmills in the years to come.