Kazakhstan, or what you’ll find between China and climate change6 min read

Luis Felipe Sauvalle Torres
On the one hand we have a grandiose UN report on climate change, on the other, states whose incumbent political leaders don’t really care about the environment unless it directly affects their constituencies. Kazakhstan represents a paradigmatic case, and as one of the regime’s keys to power and success lies in its economic ties with China, what the UN says about the climate is unlikely to have any effects on Kazakh policy changes in the near future.

A few weeks ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report on climate change, stating that the world has about a dozen years left to limit the catastrophe that global warming is causing. As a result of this, a wave of debate has been making rounds in the press and on social media, serving as a build up for the UN Climate Change Conference that will be held in Katowice, Poland, in December this year.

The primary finding of the multinational panel of 91 experts is the need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040. Other than a framed photo of high-ranking politicians shaking hands, not much can be expected to happen with regards to policy changes; an increase of 2.0 degrees Celsius is more likely to take place.

Unlikely policy changes 

As is usually the case with UN agencies, the report first and foremost tries to avoid stepping on any toes. While entire ecosystems will be destroyed in Central Asia in the coming decades, waves of Central Asian refugees are likely to start hitting Europe. Despite this, the IPCC Special Report had nothing to say about potential refugee crises, likely an omission due to political reasons.

Moreover, the  notorious stress on the “relevance” of the findings of the report in the introductory pages is indeed a statement to its lack of resonance among policy-makers. However heated, discussions about climate change remain unlikely to percolate into policy, especially in South East Asia and among the BRICS countries. A leading narrative has emerged from these countries that claims greenhouse emissions are all but necessary evils brought forth by industrialization. A global temperature increase of a couple of degrees seems like a small price to pay in order to achieve development goals. This vision is not altered by the fact that half a degree could save whole ecosystems from obliteration.

 A paradigmatic case

The case of Kazakhstan is paradigmatic. In the short-term, current economic policies are bringing growth and economic exuberance, yet those same policies in the long term will make life and livelihood non-viable. While rich in oil and gas deposits, the country has a middle-class that is still relatively small (around 20 percent of the population). However, their access to water is threatened by rising temperatures, as large parts of the country’s water reserves are situated in hard-to-access mountain glaciers. Simultaneously, the Aral sea has been retreating for the past fifty years to the extent that is has become split into two parts. This in itself represents one of the most severe environmental catastrophes in the region.

While fishermen were the first and most obvious victims of this catastrophe, pastoral lands have been contaminated by sea salt, making the land unfit for feeding livestock. The death of 200 thousand antelopes back in 2015 due to a harmless tonsil bacteria should have been the final call for politicians and policy-makers to start making changes. Instead, Kazakhstan’s environmental problems seem to be on the rise. As droughts have struck the country, the production of wheat, the country’s primary agricultural export product, has been decreasing for the last 2 years (followed by a 6.7 percent drop in export prices in 2017).  Recently, wildfires also have been destroying vast areas of forests and steppes. As floodings become a more frequent phenomenon, well functioning irrigation systems and water supplies are becoming scarcer. In March this year, whole villages were evacuated as heavy rain and melting snow caused floodings in the eastern part of the country; when people returned to their homes, they found that they had no running water anymore. Living conditions may be in danger in large parts of the country, yet whether politicians are listening remains a mystery.

The Chinese strategy

Just as the Aral sea has retreated, so has the World Bank’s funding, at least relatively speaking. While a new deal between the government and representatives of the World Bank was closed this October in order to develop Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector (worth 500 million US Dollars), the newly established China Industrial Development Bank (CDB) already totals 33 billion US Dollars in loans. To this we should add the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that was also recently established. By using loans as a strategy to exert control over foreign countries, China has found its way through to Kazakhstan. To the aforementioned loans we could add the know-how: China is developing (not just in Central Asia, but worldwide) railways, pipelines, bridges, and roads.

At the end of the day, we have a large emerging economy in the form of China, which constantly needs new sources of energy in order to continue growing, and we have a country like Kazakhstan, who is rich in oil but lack in human capital. A match made in heaven, especially if heaven is a 2,798 kilometer-long pipeline stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese province of Xinjiang; China’s foothold in Central Asia.

Historically lying on the Silk Road route and considered a part of Central Asia, the Xinjiang province became an autonomous republic in China following the Chinese Civil War that ended in 1949, Thus, Xinjiang became a bridge connecting two different worlds. However, this bridge is not only symbolic; over 20 million tonnes of oil are carried through this 2,798 kilometres-long pipeline yearly. Further prospective works are expected to yield new sources of oil. What the environmental consequences of this and similar projects are and how they will be included in the development scheme still remains to be seen.

A dismissed paradox

As a rentier state, Kazakhstan’s main concern is stability of foreign currency coming in. This means that  the regime needs to tap into the large markets of Asia in order to keep its power. As Mexicans used to say, political elites are usually “a mother to foreigners, a godmother to its peoples.” Moreover, policies undertaken to improve living standards are threatening to leave vast parts of the country’s population in even worse conditions, as access to water supplies and exposure to inclement weather will disrupt their already precarious livelihoods. This is the type of paradox that political elites of authoritarian regimes tend to dismiss.

Global Warming is here to stay, but a small difference in rising global temperatures can keep us away from total disaster. Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia are more prone to suffer the consequences and to dismiss them; their pursuit of industrialization and their authoritarian political system are roadblocks to meaningful change. When it comes to the UN Special Report, the establishment of autonomous institutions with well-trained policy-makers is of the utmost importance. On a global level, a more active role from the UN and its dependent agencies in assessing what needs to be done is important, and worries of offending the incumbent elites and their authoritarian regimes should be swept to the side.

Luis Felipe Sauvalle Torres holds a BA in History at the Catholic University of Chile and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in EU – Russia Studies at University of Tartu, Estonia. His research  focuses on the European Parliament, supranational identity, and transnational accountability. He has also authored three fiction books.