Nelya Rakhimova: “We are heading to the hell of climate change on a train without the brakes”

Nelya Rakhimova is a founder of the Open School of Sustainable Development, based in Germany but focused on working in Russia. In her exclusive interview for Draftsy she talks about the sustainable development of society and hope for a better future despite the impending ecological disaster.

Credit: Galina Gavrikova

D: Nelya, you are the founder of the Open School and a sustainable development activist and coordinator of the Coalition for Sustainable Development of Russia. You are an undoubted expert on this topic. Which definition of sustainable development seems to you the most accurate and modern?

N.R.: Sustainable development is a concept that describes humanity’s existence on the planet. We can live in harmony with nature while satisfying our economic and social needs so that future generations can also fulfill their own.

In Russian, it would be more logical to say balanced development, which means that we live in balance with both nature and future generations. This is not just some theory. The concept of sustainable development has received wide political recognition. Various declarations have been signed in this regard by U.N. members.

D: You live in Germany, but the activities of the school and the coalition are primarily aimed at the Russian society. What is the reason for this, and what difficulties do you face while living in one country and working in another?

N.R.: I would not say that the school’s activities are aimed only at the Russian society, but rather at the Russian-speaking audience that stretches outside of the borders of mother country. The coalition activities are focused on Russia, but we work with a wider public. The main challenge for me is inability to attend certain events in Russian Federation. Many events take place in Moscow, not all of them are remote. When I fail to physically get there, it means losing opportunities, contacts, and funding. However, even though I am not in Russia, I am recognized as an expert, and often invited to speak at conferences.

I know that if lived in Russia, I could have done more. However, considering safety of activists in the country and lack of freedom of speech, I do not know what circumstances I could find myself in. Perhaps I would have to suspend my activities. It is challenging for me to talk about living in my native country in the subjunctive mood.

D: Are there analogs of the Open School in Russia?

N.R.: A lot of environmentally oriented organizations and projects have recently appeared in the country. Sustainable development and education organizations are most often our partners. They use our materials and link their activities to the Open School. There are also companies that focus on climate change and sustainable business. However, there isn’t a one for one analog of our Open School in Russia. We remain a partner and a teacher to many initiatives that share our goals – we are often invited to lecture at eco-schools; they use our materials and graphics. I understand that I am still a narrowly focused specialist.

Unfortunately, involving civil society in the sustainable development agenda is still very difficult in Russia. We created the Coalition for Sustainable Development to help with this process. We managed to attract rather large organizations to our cause due to the fact that the Open School is known in certain circles.

D: Nelya, your school has existed for eight years. It is known in Russia and abroad. You conduct seminars and meetings, speak at conferences. In your opinion, are there any noticeable shifts in Russia in the field of sustainable development?

N.R.: The primary changes are taking place in the business sphere, primarily due to global competition. Investors want to work with environmentally and socially sustainable companies. Ratings of businesses are created, and investors prefer to invest in “green” companies. Despite political isolation, Russian companies are beginning to focus on international business practices. Otherwise, they lose out on partnerships and lucrative contracts. As a result, business in Russia is at the forefront of the sustainable development agenda, but, of course, it is not that simple.

Leadership in accountability and awareness of doing business in harmony with nature and society does not always mean that specific business practices change, which is very sad. To be honest, I still feel uncomfortable working with commercial organizations because I often think that there is nothing behind their words.

Therefore, I believe that sustainable development is the responsibility of the government. It should determine the standards and limits for how the corporate world operates. There is certain progress on this front, but it is not as fast as we would like it to be.

A Council of the Ministry of Economic Development has been created in the country, and Russia has finally recognized the fact of climate change due to the actions of humanity. However, if we look at the actions of the ministries and the Russian legislation in general, nothing is changing. As a result, there is still stagnation in this area and a rollback to old ways of doing things, despite the significant number of meetings and forums on the topic of sustainable development.

The same goes for civil society. Of course, there have been some shifts, but they are more formal in nature. For example, if we look at the human rights, freedom of speech, and gender equality, Russia is experiencing a complete degradation to outdated views on these matters.

D: You coordinated the first Citizens’ Review on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals released in 2020. What was the purpose of the review? How was it met in Russia? Did the authorities take note of the report?

N.R.: The objective of our report was an independent analysis of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in Russia by civil society experts. Our report was attended by both individual activists and influential non-profit organizations, and representatives of the academic community. The final result of our report was significantly different from the state report, which was also released that year. The draft of the official report was very extensive and included a lot of important information from specialists, but then it was shortened, and only what was needed was left. Our report openly talked about the acute problems of Russian society.

D: Have you read the official report?

N.R.: I even participated in its development and was a member of at least three working committees. Participation in the remote format was then impossible. At that time, all meetings were mostly face-to-face, and my colleagues rarely used online meetings. As a result, the problem with the official report was that the regions were not included in the work.

We made a different choice. When we started working on the Civil Review, we tried to include regions in the process, to make everything open and accessible. We decided not to filter the participants, not to hold closed meetings. Any citizen wishing to take part in the discussions could register. We posted information with an offer to participate in the development of the report on major social portals. We wanted to give an independent assessment of the situation, and I additionally set myself the goal of representing Russian civil society at the international level.

Europe still doesn’t know much about Russia. Europeans rarely work with our region and Eastern Europe, because all attention and resources are focused on the developing countries of Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

I believe that our goal of representing Russia has been achieved. We have received feedback from various international agencies.

It is difficult for me to judge which aspects of the report were taken into account by the government, because we do not have effective communication on this topic. We were, of course, thanked for our active position at several international events. The most positive thing we got from the state was Chubais’s reaction. He has openly made statements that our review should be considered in parallel with the official report on sustainable development.

D: In a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humankind was given a bitter verdict: our activities are causing significant damage to the planet and some changes in nature and climate are irreversible – at least in the next hundred years. In your opinion, what should be done by the governments of states in order to somehow reduce the effect of the approaching catastrophe?

N.R.: They should at least do something!

D: Will this “something” be enough?

N.R.: This is a difficult question. We are heading to this hell on a train with no brakes. But we shouldn’t give up either. It is necessary to set hard limits on the impact of industry on the climate. Russia is one of the countries that do nothing to prevent an environmental catastrophe.

Our country recognized the reality of the irreversible process of climate change and expressed a desire to act. But again, everyone understands that all the goals that the government sets, either have already been achieved or will be achieved without the intervention of the state. What does it mean? To comply with international standards, industrial emissions need to be reduced by a certain percentage, based on the 1990 level. The Soviet Union had a very high level of industrial emissions. After the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of economic regression, all production stopped and, accordingly, emissions decreased.

Russia still uses the fact that we have not returned to the 1990 level as evidence of a reduction of the impact of industry on the climate. When we are told that we are the fourth country in the world in terms of emissions (the first three are the USA, China and India. If we unite all the E.U. countries, Russia will be in fifth place), we answer that we have already reduced them. Arguments are often heard: “Look at the United States, they do nothing at all. Why should we do something?”

I cannot say that I am a climate expert, but the global industry needs to be transformed. It is necessary to decarbonize the economy, which includes three main components: transition to renewable energy sources wherever possible; electrification and the conversion of all technologies that run on fossil technologies to electricity; and industrial energy efficiency.

Nowadays, there is a lot of talk about green hydrogen. It can be used like natural gas, but when it burns, water is formed. It is completely carbon neutral. But we need a lot of energy to produce hydrogen. If we find a way to produce green hydrogen using renewable energy sources, we will arrive at the global goal of energy conservation.

Speaking about the transformation of the economy through renewable energy sources, electrification, and energy efficiency, it should be noted that the process should be guided by the principle of a just transition. Decarbonization should take place with social considerations. For example, if tomorrow France decides to abandon nuclear energy, and Russia stops using coal and oil, then the states must provide employment for all citizens who have lost their jobs because of this reform.

D: How can we, the ordinary citizens, help our planet?

N.R.: There are two possible ways to make a difference. A person can be a rational consumer and behave in society with sustainable development in mind, observing the principles of social equality. A citizen can also get involved in work with the local governments, trying to influence politics in various ways.

One of the ways to influence political reforms is voting in general elections. For example, in the German capital, elections were recently held, and the Green Party came in second with a minimal margin over the more traditional Social Democratic Party. Serious changes in society can begin with legislative reform.

D: If you could send a message to the future, what would you write to our descendants?

N.R.: I think it is better to write to those who are in the past and call them to action. I am probably not ready to write a letter to the future yet, because I am in the process of a fight for the better tomorrow. If the moment comes when I realize that I can’t do anything else in the present, then I’ll sit down to write something like this: “Dear future generation, I did everything I could, but the results are not great. I’m sorry, we did our best!”