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Russia’s slow journey towards sustainability

Saint Petersburg, Nevksy Perspective: common scene in today’s hero-city

Despite the growing attention towards the topic of sustainability, several countries around the world are steel commonly seen as “not sustainable” from a social, economic, and especially environmental point of view. A clear example of this is Russia’s absence at COP26, being it one of the main producers of CO2 emissions in the world. Moscow explained its decision of not participating by highlighting its own target of developing a zero-emission economy by 2060, a deadline that, according to President Putin, would allow the Russian Federation to pursue its development projects following its own pace, without any restrictions being imposed by other countries.

Given this, it is necessary to talk more about Russia, a state that, according to the opinion of many, does not have much to do with sustainability. During an international mobility semester spent at the Saint Petersburg State University (SPbU), I had the opportunity of getting in touch with Dr. Tatiana Solovei. Active scholar in several research field, such as social reporting and accounting, and corporate social responsibility, Dr. Solovei offers a module called “Global Business and the SDGs”, through which she introduces Economics students to the role of companies and private economic actors in the common actions towards the implementation of the Agenda 2030.

Thanks to Dr. Solovei and her support, I had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with several Russian students, with the aim of sharing our experiences and compare our countries’ efforts on the topic of sustainability. Drawing from her research experience, Dr. Solovei introduced the whole class to the topic of sustainability in Russia, and to the several efforts undertaken at the governamental, economic, and civilian level for the achievement of the SDGs.

As of today, Russia still lacks a strong effort coming from the government. The Russian Federation still lacks a national strategy for sustainable development, while the first voluntary national report on the progresses achieved in the implementation of the Agenda 2030 has been published only in 2020. According to Dr. Solovei’s opinion, even if such efforts might represent a sign of growing interests on the topic, the government still sees sustainable development as too costly for the country. Other types of initiatives are still under development, for example the 2018 draft law requiring companies to provide non-financial reports, draft which is still being discussed.

Concerning the economic sectors of the country, the trends measured by the Moscow Exchange signal a growing interest coming from companies and investors towards the implementation of new strategies of Environmental and Social Governance (ESG), strategies which would urge companies to incorporate the values of sustainability within their economic activity. Nevertheless, the results of an investigation carried out on the activity of the twenty major Russian firms show that, during the period 2017-2018, only the 50% of such firms refers to the Global Reporting Initiative standards (GRI): even if such companies declared their compliance with GRI, they still do not communicate the level of conformity achieved with GRI’s standards, blurring the actual meaning and relevance of their reports.

While discussing Russian economic sectors, it is necessary to take a look at the oil and gas sector. An investigation carried out by a group of students from SPbU’s economics faculty (“Assessment of the quality of non-financial reporting 2017-2018 of oil and gas companies in Russia”) highlighted how, on a group of seventeen big oil companies, only eleven regularly publish some sort of sustainability report. The investigation pointed out how these reports follow only half of the requirements set by the GRI standards. The companies involved in the production of gas, oil and derivates, are included among the main actors influencing the local environment through CO2 emissions. For this reasons, as long as big oil companies are not involved iin the activity of non-financial reporting, it would be a hard task for the Russian government to give a real estimate of the country’s progress towards an higher level of environmental sustainability.

Notwithstanding the low awareness on the topic of sustainability among economic agents, the presence of different, the presence of several Russian firms within the participants to the Global Compact Initiative (GC), ONU’s initiative aimed at promoting the principles of corporate sustainability at a global level, is a sign of hope for the future. Nevertheless, even in this case several critical points can be found. The results of an analysis undertaken on those Russian firms taking part in the GC highlights how many of these firms do not respect the fixed standards for communicating data, making it impossible to carry out an effective evaluation of the progress achieved. It is therefore necessary that the government comprehends the reasons why these companies are not willing, or not able, to follow the GC’s standards.

Lastly, it is important also to assess the role of the civil society in this field. The awareness of the citizens towards the topic of sustainability comes especially from big cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersbug, where it is possible to find civic initiatives at a local level for the promotion of the SDGs. Solovei underlines the awareness towards the topic of sustainability is growing even outside the university, spreading among citizens. Nevertheless, the government still does not offer enough support to meet the demand of the citizenship: an example off this is the lack of an efficient system for separated waste collection in big urban centers like Saint Petersburg, where such collection points are still few and often far from residential areas. To face such situation, several citizen initiatives were born in the last years, like РазДельный Сбор (Razdel’ny Sbor), environmentalist movement which organizes civil actions for the collections of separated waste, or the initiative “recyclemap” of GreenPeace, which supports citizens by offering an interactive map where it is possible to locate all the collection points around the city.

While there is still a lot of work to do for the future, some positive experiences can already be found within Russia, experiences from which the country could start in order to make progresses towards the achievement of the sustainability objective. It is however necessary that the government pays higher attention to the topic: the activity and activism of citizens and firms could push the legislators to understand how sustainability could represent not only a cost, but an opportunity for the future, and most importantly an interest of the whole country.



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