Russian billionaire touts woolly mammoths as climate fix

Russian billionaire touts woolly mammoths as climate fix

Attendees view a projection at the Pleistocene Park pavilion in the Technology and Innovation hub within the Green Zone on the opening day of the COP28 climate conference at Expo City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday. (Bloomberg photo)
Attendees view a projection at the Pleistocene Park pavilion in the Technology and Innovation hub within the Green Zone on the opening day of the COP28 climate conference at Expo City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday. (Bloomberg photo)

Andrey Melnichenko, a Russian billionaire who made a fortune in coal and fertiliser then found himself sanctioned after the invasion of Ukraine, now has a plan to stem methane emissions from the thawing Siberian permafrost: recreating a time when woolly mammoths roamed the tundra.

At a lavish pavilion at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai, Melnichenko is showcasing a plan to bring a slice of Russia’s ecology back 14,000 years. It’s an eccentric idea to counter a very dangerous problem — methane is a much more potent gas than carbon dioxide and billions of tons of it are trapped in Russia’s vast tundra. Restoring Siberia’s ice age ecosystem could slow its release, the theory goes.

Over the next two weeks, over 70,000 delegates and many thousands of Emirati residents will visit the sprawling venue hosting COP and have the chance to see a digital menagerie of ice age animals move through a springtime tundra on the screens of an immersive exhibit. As visitors walk, the digital mist clears around them, revealing mammoths, reindeer, wild horses and musk oxen — as well as lions and camels.

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The Andrey Melnichenko Foundation is listed as a “climate supporter” on the official COP28 website. It got that status by sponsoring the 160 square meter pavilion in the summit’s so-called Green Zone, where the Russian Pleistocene Park project that Melnichenko funds is exhibiting its plans, according to a representative. The pavilion is marked on an official map simply as “Andrey Melnichenko.”

The pavilion reflects what’s changed at COPs, conceived as an annual opportunity to drive forward climate diplomacy and set a global policy framework to combat climate change. Official negotiations have become just one small part of the forum.

Largest COP 

Dubai is the largest COP ever with a massive Green Zone adjacent to the Blue Zone that houses the negotiations. Here, pavilions showcase the climate agendas of nations, corporations and NGOs. It can feel like a trade show.

“You could think of this as a circus where the main event is sometimes eclipsed by the prominence of the sideshows,” said Robert Stavins, a Harvard University professor of environmental economics who has attended more than 15 COPs. “That’s why I’ve come to characterise the annual COP such as this year’s as Climate Expo 2023.”  

Melnichenko, who’s mounting a legal challenge to the EU sanctions imposed on him after Russia invaded Ukraine, became a partner of Pleistocene Park earlier this year. The 20 square-kilometre enclosure, whose name was inspired by Jurassic Park, has existed for over a decade and was previously sponsored by other Russian companies, including diamond miner Alrosa PJSC.

Attendees take smartphone photographs of a projection at the Pleistocene Park pavilion in the Technology and Innovation hub within the Green Zone on the opening day of the COP28 climate conference at Expo City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday. (Bloomberg photo)

Musk oxen

The scientists behind Pleistocene Park say grazing animals like Yakut horses and Kalmyk cows — which currently roam there — could foster plants that absorb more CO2 and reduce the heat sucked into the earth. Melnichencko has sponsored the transfer of 14 musk oxen to the enclosure, which plans to expand its area by 10 times in the coming years. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the park was working with US-based Colossal Laboratories and Biosciences, which plans to resurrect a woolly mammoth.

“The permafrost must remain frozen, whatever the cost,” a disembodied American-accented voice tells visitors to the pavilion, which is near stands belonging to IBM, PureHealth Holding and Microsoft Corp. A team of representatives flanks the exhibit, explaining the concept in Russian, Arabic and English to passers-by. Russian sound engineers weave in and out the wire-filled space behind the screens.

“The Andrey Melnichenko Foundation promotes and supports the implementation of NBS (nature-based solutions) worldwide,” reads a screen. 

The tycoon, who heads climate initiatives for a sanctioned club of Russian oligarchs, is due to speak at a COP28 event on Dec 5, leading a Russian panel on sustainability and climate change along with officials and Russian scientists, according to the programme.

He also wants to introduce a new system for BRICS+ nations to trade carbon quotas from nature-based solutions, a plan he says could be implemented at the 2024 BRICS+ summit in Russia, according to a recent editorial by Melnichenko published in the Khaleej Times. 

Melnichenko, whose wealth is valued at over $17 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is a citizen of Russia as well as the United Arab Emirates, a status he gained before the war in Ukraine. He was sanctioned by the European Union and the US after appearing at a televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin as the leader sought to justify the war to the Russian business elite hours after sending troops into its neighbouring country.

Melnichenko is co-founder of EuroChem Group AG, one of the world’s largest fertilizer makers, and Russia’s biggest thermal coal producer Suek JSC.

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