In May I passed through Almaty, the largest city in Kazkhastan and its historical capital. Recently arrived in Central Asia, I was looking for insight into the politics of climate change in a country both threatened by increasing water stress and economically dependent its Caspian Sea oil reserves. Professor Nygmet Ibadildin was kind enough to meet and explain his perspective on some of these issues. He is an assistant professor of political economy, natural resource management, and development studies at one of Kazakhstan’s top institutes for economics and humanitarian studies, KIMEP University.
Ibadildin’s research takes the idea of a resource curse, which argues that countries with plentiful non-renewable resources (like minerals and fossil fuels) tend to develop more slowly and have less democratic governments than countries with fewer resources, and applies it to the Kazakh economy.
Over the last two years, the Kazakh tenge has matched tanking oil prices with spiraling inflation, losing more than half its value between 2014 and the beginning of this year, and then recovering as oil prices leveled off and began to rise again. I wondered how he saw the future of oil and the Kazakh economy, considering the events of the past few years.
When electric transport really starts to take off and demand for oil begins to taper, will the country be in for a dive? In Ibadildin’s view, with the country’s small population, abundant land and lack of colonial ambitions, a smaller role for oil could actually be a positive development for the country’s economy and institutions.
On the subject of electric cars and their impact on the automotive industry, Ibadildin had this to say:
NI: Now, with all this social media and publicity, the question is not even about the environment, it’s about fashion. With all of these movie stars switching to Tesla, it’s becoming a role model, and all these big majors in the car industry have to follow…If BMW and Toyota take it seriously, then it will be really mass-market.”
FW: So, if [the electric car industry] does take off, how do you think that would affect Kazakhstan and other oil-producing countries?
NI: I think it will revive some creativity over here, because already on some oil there’s just too much political power concentration…I think the government will be much more responsible. It will be more liberal. People are afraid that living standards will go down. I don’t think they will go down so drastically. 17 million people, that’s nothing, I mean—you can organize some of the other industries over here, in terms of agriculture and other products.
Russia, I think, is really much more unpredictable in terms of its oil prices because they have this imperial headache. With oil prices being cut, already they are doing strange things. And if it will go down, I think Russia is really in more of a dangerous position than Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is kind of out of these big ambitions.
I’m optimistic, usually.
FW: What about Kazakhstan’s exposure to climate change risk?
In general, people think with climate change, the future is uncertain…if in Kazakhstan there will be more humidity, it will be better for wheat production. But so far, with climate change, it is really the unpredictability of climate. Because one year, there’s a lot of rain, and flood is coming, and other years the global warms, in Kazakhstan there can be desertification…
Our biggest water threat is China, because our rivers originate in China…We have three main rivers, and two of those rivers come from China. They are trying to develop Xinjiang [province] [ed. the large, arid Chinese province that shares its western border with Kazakhstan], and if they develop Xinjiang industrially and agriculturally, then they are taking the water from these rivers.
Now, glaciers are melting in Central Asia and it can influence to the water supply and agriculture in the long term, endangering the living standards of many people. Fast-melting and even disappearance of the glaciers as water supply reserves of the region will influence wildlife and rural and urban centers. So far, the overall effect is difficult to analyze or predict, but water-saving technologies and new crops are absolutely necessary for sustainable development in the region.