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The Collapse of the USSR Was One the Best Things that Happened to the Environment

Vincent Geloso

If you read economic histories of the Soviet Union, you will find that what little “private” sector was allowed was in farming. Small private plots that accounted for 3 percent of sown land produced between 39 percent and 66 percent of the output of potatoes, vegetables, meat, milk, and eggs. The rest of the land and output was produced on state-owned or collective farms. This is used to argue that the private sector’s efficiency is unrivaled compared to the public sector. However, even the private farms of the USSR paled in efficiency when compared to other countries.

When the USSR collapsed, agricultural production collapsed too. Imports of food from the west, however, increased dramatically. As one scholar put it, “foreign foodstuffs both raw and processed flooded Russia’s marketplace.” Millions of hectares of cropland were abandoned and recovered by forest and plants – something that we can deem to be a direct environmental benefit.

However, there was an indirect one. The growth of forests and herbaceous plants allows for carbon sequestration to take place. Carbon sequestration through forest growth is the process by which growing trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, convert it into biomass via photosynthesis, and store it in their tissues mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change mitigation. The scale of land abandonment in the former USSR was so important that some scholars argue it was large enough to impact continental and global carbon budgets. Essentially, it caused a carbon sink that mitigated the effects of some of the growth in global greenhouse gas emissions.

How big of a sink was it? One study finds that carbon absorption in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine between 1990 and 2017 represented 1 gigaton of carbon. Another study, which focused only on Russia and Kazakhstan, found roughly similar effects and gave an idea of its significance by pointing out that it was sufficient to “compensate annually about 36 percent and 49 percent of the current fossil fuel emissions in Russia and Kazakhstan, respectively.”

These proportions suggest that the collapse of the USSR was an incredibly cheap climate-change mitigation “policy.”  Indeed, the mitigation was itself a benefit to economic growth rather than a cost (i.e., mitigation policies now require large costs weighed only against the benefit of less pollution). Income statistics in soviet countries generally overstated conditions, something that is common to communist countries, such that the dip post-collapse was not as pronounced and that the recovery took place. Since then, living standards have exceeded their prior levels. As such, the collapse mostly likely enhanced economic development and mitigated climate change.

And here is a dose of extra optimism for you: It could happen again!

Well, there is no Soviet Union to collapse again. However, there are hundreds of agricultural support policies that encourage too much use of land. Indeed, consider the OECD data on producer support to different agricultural activities. The levels of state support are high and increasing. Eliminating these support measures would mean that agricultural firms would have to change their methods and use less land. This would allow for a replication of what happened after the USSR collapsed, with the extra benefit of unburdening taxpayers of the cost of their support measures.

In fact, the same OECD data also shows that European states tend to encourage animal farming far more than other sectors. The result is more production from this type of farming than other types – a type that accounts for a large share of global greenhouse gas emissions (especially when weighted against the calories they provide). Ending subsidies would discourage that particularly polluting form of activity while, again, unburdening taxpayers of having to support inefficient producers.

In all of this there is a simple lesson. Not all climate mitigation policies require more government intervention or government remedies. Some, which can be quite effective, only require governments to step back. 

This article is courtesy of Vincent Geloso and American Institute for Economic Research, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. The original can be found here.

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