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How the Soviet collapse cut greenhouse gas emissions

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a fall in greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers have now calculated exactly how much, and how this could change.
June 27, 2019

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The global food system is a key driver of climate change, responsible for around a quarter of manmade greenhouse gas emissions. And this system changes drastically when there is a political and economic shakeup.

That is exactly what happened when the USSR split into independent republics in 1991. And a new study calculates the fall in greenhouse gas emissions from the fall of the Soviet Union. Between 1992 to 2011, there was a net reduction in carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of 7.6 gigatons because of a “massive restructuring of the domestic food system…and a major restructuring of agricultural trade,” researchers write in the study published in Environmental Research Letters.

That is about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions that were generated due to the deforestation in Latin America in the same time period. 

The dismantling of the Soviet Union triggered an industrial collapse. Subsequent high product prices and lower purchasing power slashed consumption of animal products. This drop in demand led to a halving of pig and cattle numbers. And it also led to one of the biggest land-use changes of the 20th century because farmers abandoned huge swaths of farmland especially in Russia and Kazakhstan, and headed to work in cities. As plants took over these abandoned croplands, they sequestered carbon into the soil, making the farmlands massive carbon dioxide sinks.

An international team of researchers led by Florian Schierhorn from the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Germany wanted to quantify the effect of these two factors on greenhouse gas emissions. The team used FAOSTAT, a database of land-use change from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; models such as the Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model to quantify emissions from production of livestock products; as well as previously reported estimates on emissions intensity of producing crops other than animal feed.

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Emissions reductions due to meat/milk production and soil carbon sequestration had an approximately equal share in the total emissions reductions of 7.6 gigatons, the calculations show.

The team cautions that emissions will probably rebound as the food system continues to evolve in former USSR countries. Currently abandoned farmland could continue to sequester carbon until 2050. But, they say, “the booming agricultural sectors may trigger recultivation of abandoned land, thus preventing additional carbon sequestration.”

Changes in beef consumption play the biggest role in the region’s greenhouse gas balance. Beef consumption has declined in former Soviet Union countries between 2010 to 2016, but this may not continue. Plus, since beef production is stagnant, the region has become one of the biggest importers of beef from South America, where greenhouse gas emissions related to beef are high.

“The case of the [Former Soviet Union] reveals how negative emissions due to agricultural land abandonment can be compromised by increasing emissions from rising agricultural imports,” the researchers write.

Source: Florian Schierhorn et al. Large greenhouse gas savings due to changes in the post-Soviet food systems. Environmental Research Letters, 2019.


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