Greenhouse gas production fell in wake of Soviet collapse

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When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, its citizens discovered they had nothing to lose but their emissions.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When the Soviet Union fell, it took greenhouse gas emissions with it.

A new study reveals a net reduction of 7.61 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalents in the first two decades after 1991, due to changes in agriculture, trade, food production and consumption.

That’s significant; it’s about a quarter of the level of emissions from the much-publicised deforestation in Latin America in the same period.

The major drivers, the researchers say, were a decline in domestic livestock production and soil organic carbon sequestration on abandoned cropland, particularly in Russia and Kazakhstan.

However, they caution that emissions are likely to rebound as changes in food systems continue in former Soviet Union countries.

The international study was led by Florian Schierhorn, from the Leibniz Institute of Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, Germany. The findings are published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“When the former Soviet Union collapsed, the transition from a planned to a market economy had drastic consequences for the region’s agricultural sector and food systems,” Schierhorn says. 

“Higher prices and lower purchasing power reduced the consumption of meat, particularly beef.

“This fall in demand, coupled with a reduction in state support for agriculture, led to a halving in pig and cattle numbers. This collapse in the livestock sector led to widespread agricultural abandonment.”

Schierhorn and colleagues used a database of land-use change and the associated changes in soil organic carbon stocks to quantify the emissions from agricultural production, including livestock and the emissions from the trade of agricultural goods. {%recommended 1590%}

They then estimated the net cumulative change in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all years from 1991 to 2011, minus the average emissions by the end of the Soviet Union.

Their analysis suggests several further developments, including the potential for abandoned cropland to sequester additional significant carbon until mid-century, but with these gains likely being mitigated by an increase in agricultural development.

In addition, importing agricultural commodities such as beef may compromise these gains through embodied carbon emissions.

“Once economies in the former Soviet Union had stabilised in the late 1990s, domestic food demand in the region started to rebound,” Schierhorn says. “The consumption of beef, for example, increased by 15% between 2000 and 2008.

“However, beef production in the region had stagnated, and shows no signs of recovering. The demand meant it became the second largest importer of beef globally, with 80% coming from South America. This is significant, because South American beef exports embody high GHG emissions, due to deforestation and inefficient production systems.

“This relationship shows how negative emissions due to agricultural land abandonment can be compromised by increasing emissions from rising agricultural imports. This situation is likely similar in many industrialised and emerging regions where agricultural land use has been contracting in the recent past.”

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