OPINION - Russia's climate policy: A reluctant player

The country has signed almost every UN climate treaty and has been an active participant in climate negotiations through international blocs such as the G20 and BRICS for years, its actual climate record, however, is among the worst in the world

Bijan Tafazzoli   | 14.10.2021
OPINION - Russia's climate policy: A reluctant player

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at Koc University, Istanbul.


With less than two weeks to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow and the latest UN climate report giving the warning of “code red for humanity” [1], Russia’s climate policy is still not actively helping to reduce global emissions.

Russia has emerged as a major player in international climate politics due to its decisive role in the Kyoto Protocol, its position as a major global supplier of fossil fuels, and its significant share in global emissions. Significantly since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russia has sought to reclaim its global role by entering great power clubs and making the country visible on the international scene. The country has often sought both political gain and economic advantages in exchange for cooperation. International climate negotiations are primarily about “who should do what” in terms of reducing emissions, and Russia tried to settle these issues by introducing itself as a great ecological power. However, relative gains have been essential for Russia, and its leadership has primarily been in a standby mode, monitoring the approaches of countries such as the US and China, and has been cautious in making commitments in the climate negotiations. Therefore, it was not surprising, for instance, when Russia did not participate in the Kyoto-2 Protocol (while countries like the US, Japan, and Canada did not either) or ratified the Paris Agreement so late.

Some argue that Russia is a reluctant player and that much of its climate policy and international commitment is mere "window dressing" [2], preferring to gain image points in international arenas by announcing policies rather than taking actual action. While the country has signed almost every UN climate treaty and has been an active participant in climate negotiations through international blocs such as the G20 and BRICS for years, its actual climate record is among the worst in the world. The Climate Action Tracker [3] rated Russia's climate actions as "critically insufficient," noting that the country's Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is significantly higher than the emissions levels projected under current policies and is one of the weakest presented by any government. Indeed, the Russian Ministry of Energy has explicitly stated that increasing renewable energy is a direct threat to its planned fossil fuel expansion.

From Kyoto to Paris: There is no alternative

Following the US refusing to join the Kyoto Protocol, Russia played a decisive role in the negotiations’ success. With the biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter out, the rest of the countries’ emissions did not exceed 44%. The Kyoto Protocol could not enter into force without Russia’s support, which accounted for 17.4% of global GHGs emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was a very favorable deal for Russia. The country agreed to minimal commitments due to the post-Soviet GHGs reduction (while largely failing to develop a climate policy) and only moderately engaged the Kyoto mechanism as a signatory.

By 1997, the Russian economy [4] was 39% smaller and its GHGs emissions had been reduced by 34% when compared to 1990, the baseline mitigation target in negotiation. As a result, the country may be able to increase its emissions through the Kyoto mechanism or sell a significant portion of its emission allowance. In addition, Russia used the 1990 baseline for its INDC in the Paris Agreement. Between 2008 and 2012, Russia was able to sell [5] 238 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq) at an average price of USD 10 per ton through joint implementation projects under the Kyoto Protocol. Nonetheless, despite the favorable conditions, the true significance of the promises was sometimes limited. For example, while WTO membership was a major motivator for Russia's pro-Kyoto stance, the country was blamed for stopping necessary market reform, and its slow WTO accession was completed in December 2011 after complex negotiations.

In 2009 the Kremlin had officially accepted the anthropogenic climate change [6] view, although elements of climate skepticism persist among some scientific circles, the broader media, and public discourse. The first official document addressing climate change in 2009, the Climate doctrine of the Russian Federation, was signed by President Medvedev. The framework document emphasized Russia’s “readiness to cope with climate change” without providing specifics. At Copenhagen’s 2009 COP 15 conference, Russia adopted more positive rhetoric over climate change and international cooperation. However, the country opposed the Kyoto-2 commitments at the Durban COP 17 in 2011. As the fourth largest GHGs emitter, Russia again appeared to be a heavy-weight negotiator during the international negotiations. However, Russia’s stance on the Paris Agreement (COP 21) was not very smooth either.

Reaction to the Paris Agreement sparked widespread debate in Russia. While a significant number of prominent Russian companies oppose the ratification of the agreement, others believe that ratifying it would have no real impact because the commitments were non-binding. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of more internationally exposed Russian companies, such as Lukoil or Russia’s largest gold producer Polyus, are under pressure to meet the requirements of environmental, social, and governance metrics, and to lead the way in climate policies ahead of other Russian industries. Although there are some climate debates and the ability to move them in certain directions outside the Kremlin, the final and decisive word belongs to authorities such as government ministers, the Duma, and especially the president, who outweigh the industry and climate activists as veto players.

Russia finally ratified the Paris Agreement in October 2019, almost as the last country to do so. Nonetheless, Russia was quick to condemn Trump's withdrawal, as the Russian president's spokesman reiterated: "Today, there is no alternative [7] [to this agreement].” The Kremlin now recognizes the threat of climate change on “socio-economic development, people’s lives, health and industry” [8] in the Russian territory. Russia has pretty valid reasons to be concerned. There is evidence that shows the country may be more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change than others. For example, over the period of 1976–2018, Russia's annual near-surface temperature growth was generally 2.5 times (and in some regions several times) that of the global average. In 2021, regions across Russia experienced record high temperatures, with some areas above the Arctic Circle experiencing their hottest temperatures ever. [20] Yakutia, Russia's largest and coldest region, was home to the world's largest wildfires this year, and fires destroyed more than 18.16 million hectares of Russian forest in 2021, setting an absolute record [9] since the country began tracking forest fires via satellite in 2001. Flash floods forced entire villages to be evacuated, displacing thousands of people. The “absolutely unprecedented” [10] scale of natural disasters concerned the Kremlin, particularly the economic loss caused by climate change, which would devour an annual 3% of the country's GDP by 2030. [11]

Russia’s per unit of GDP energy consumption is much more than the world’s leading economies, while energy prices are relatively low and capital cost is high. Even by achieving the country’s target of reducing energy intensity to one-third of the 2015 level, Russia would remain a global outsider in its economic energy intensity. According to the country’s official energy-efficient scenario, only about 5% of Russia’s energy consumption would come from renewable energy by 2050. Revenues from exporting fossil fuels are a vital element of Russia’s budget. Fossil fuels are a significant source of GHGs emissions, and as a result, climate policies that reduce GHGs emissions could affect Russia’s economy. In Russia, petroleum and natural gas exports account for roughly 40% of the federal budget [12]. Scenarios of Russian natural gas export [13] until 2050 suggest that an 80% cut in the European Union’s GHGs emissions would reduce almost 75% of Russia’s natural gas export to the EU by 2050. Although natural gas consumption would increase in the short and medium-term, maybe the golden age of gas should be assessed more conservatively in the long term. Previously promising export expansion of coal to the Asian market is also in serious doubt because countries such as China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and others prioritize alternative energies over polluting coal.

Russia’s climate mitigation is far behind global efforts due to its leadership inactivity, particularly its “ostrich approach to phasing out fossil fuels” and doubts about climate change’s anthropogenic origin. A 2014 study compared China, the US, the EU, India, Russia, and Japan on six key policies, namely “carbon taxes, emissions trading, feed-in tariffs, renewable energy quotas, fossil fuel power plant bans, and vehicle emissions standards.” Although no country was leading in all the criteria, Russia was “inactive on all fronts.” In fact, Russia’s current plans predict that its emissions will continue to rise, [14] from 2.12 billion tons of CO2 in 2019 to 2.29 billion tons by 2050.

What about others outside the Kremlin?

The problem is not only Russian politicians. The Russian public does not consider climate change to be a serious anthropogenic phenomenon, climate activists are not active enough, and the Russian media do not actively encourage a pro-climate view. Although a coalition of Russian climate science and environmental organizations started to raise climate awareness, the public typically confuses weather forecasts and climate projections. Only 55% acknowledged the anthropogenic origins of climate change, and according to an April 2020 Ipsos survey [15], only 13% of Russians ranked climate change as the most important environmental issue confronting their country, well below countries such as Saudi Arabia (25%) and the world average of 37%. In September 2019, around 7.6 million people in 185 countries took to the streets to protest the environmental threat. Russia had one of the fewest protesters (just over 80 people), far behind countries such as the US, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Meanwhile, we should consider the state's restrictive laws on public protests, the general lack of awareness among the population, and the lack of coverage of the issue when interpreting these low numbers.

Environmental NGOs are often considered “illegitimate” by the Russian leadership, which has passed “numerous laws” to limit them. In many cases, large environmental NGOs survived the 1990s by relying on foreign funding. However, the movement could no longer mobilize a broad swath of the public. The Putin administration labeled many environmental groups “anti-Russian” and used hostile tactics such as raiding NGO offices, intimidating journalists and instituting severe legislative measures to suppress advocacy and defiance. A recent report [16] by the Russian Socio-Ecological Union claims that in 2020, 450 environmental activists suffered persecution in 26 regions of Russia, and one died. According to the 2012 Law on Foreign Agents, public organizations receiving foreign funding and engaging in “political activity” register as “foreign agents” and should pay significant fines or cease operating. As of July 2021, the “foreign agent” register listed 76 organizations, and an additional media register listed 20 media outlets and individuals. Crackdown on environmental groups was particularly harsh. A 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report [17] showed that 29 environmental NGOs had been labeled “foreign agents” under the law, at least 14 of them shut down.

Despite all of the obstacles, some dedicated activists continue to protest environmental issues, particularly at the local level, determined to protect their right to a favorable environment under Article 42 of Russia's constitution. Environmental protests at the grassroots level, such as those in Khimki Forest, Yekaterinburg Park Square, and Karelia, have captured the attention of the international media. However, environmental activism in Russia is fraught with peril. To say the least, the leadership and political establishment are not encouraging, and neither is the media. Instead, when they quote Putin, their coverage emphasizes how the Russian state combats global warming after ratifying the Paris Agreement. Unlike in the Western media, party affiliations and political ideologies are not as important in Russia. As a result, while typically left/liberal-leaning media are more pro-climate action and less skeptical, the media's political approach and ownership structure have little influence on the media's representation of climate issues and problems to the public. Instead, economic conditions and energy interests play an important role in the media's portrayal of the subject.

Russia’s green policy and actions lag far behind those of almost every other major country in the world. However, it seems that Russia experiences the prisoner’s dilemma situation, in which its non-cooperative actions, at least in the short or medium term, are individually preferential at the expense of the best collective outcome.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.​​​​​​​


















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