EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

In March, Vladimir Putin said in an interview to CNBC that Russia stands to benefit from global warming since it creates favorable conditions for national economic improvement. Later this year, after the U.S. declared its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, Putin emphasized that people should not worry too much about Trump exiting the deal. Hence, it may be surprising that Russia signed the Paris Agreement and committed to the plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, followed by Vladimir Putin’s forceful speech given by him on UN Climate change summit in Paris in 2015, in which he, amongst other things, said that climate change has become one of the biggest challenges the world is facing.

However, Russia, as the fifth-largest emitter in the world, has not yet ratified the agreement, and seems to treat the climate crisis without the requisite urgency. Russia thus far only has made an effort to curb emissions when and where it is economically beneficial, making emissions reduction efforts in Russia inconsistent at best, inconsequential at worst.

Furthermore, sanctions imposed in 2014 by the Obama administration after Russia’s annexation of Crimea have made it difficult to invest into energy efficiency in electricity transmission. The sanctions targeted potential investors by means of limiting the access of Russian banks to the American credit market. Additionally, sanctions sought to block the transfer of technology for long-term energy exploration.

Alexander Bedritsky, the top climate change adviser to president Putin, said in an interview for VICE news that in the convention of Paris Agreement states the following: “Countries must take action to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases, while also not hindering their economic development”. He went on to say that “as long as there is a demand for mineral resources, they will be extracted”. These caveats to meeting emissions targets are the linchpins of Russian justification for lagging behind in the transition towards renewables.

Furthermore, the effects of climate change are very beneficial for the country’s oil and gas industry, as melting ice in the northern part of Russia opens up new fossil-fuel deposits for exploitation. These resources contribute about half of the revenues of the domestic budget.

Simply put, Russia is uniquely suited to reap the few “rewards” of climate change while not expected to suffer the majority of its dire consequences. In the absence of solidarity and altruism on Russia’s part, the primary loser in this equation is, unfortunately, the climate.

 

Additionally, Russia is very slow in investing into solar and wind energy, even though the country possesses immense wind resources. One of the reasons for this is of course the expensive infrastructure and tight budget, in part due to the West’s sanctions. However, the main problem remains the lack of incentive for the government to do so: due to the aforementioned possibilities for further extraction of fossil fuels brought on by climate change, the Russian government has opted for maximizing its profits rather than conforming to its Paris Agreement pledges.

Experts suggest that Russia and the U.S. are creating a new climate-sceptic geopolitical constellation, which will significantly slow down the climate change action and opens the way to new trade deals.

One of the examples of new trade possibilities is Russia’s future access to the Northern Sea Route. In 2011, Russia and ExxonMobil, under chief executive Rex Tillerson (now Secretary of State in the Trump administration) signed a $500B deal to develop oil and gas exploitation in the Russian Arctic. Due to climate change, the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth. In the past, the Northern Sea Route, which connects the North East of Russia with Northern Scandinavia through the Arctic waters, was largely inaccessible because of the ice. The ice now melting, vast reserves of gas and minerals are extractable, and new shipping routes become traversable. Russia’s access to the route is of high strategic importance for the country, as it offers a direct connection to the world’s oceans. The Northern Sea Route would cut the trip between Europe and Asia and North America in half.

 

However, one important remaining question remains: Will Russia not suffer under climate change as well?

Because of its geography, global warming is beneficial for Russia. Much of the world’s biggest country in terms of territory is inhabitable and cannot be farmed. Due to rising temperatures, some cities have become more attractive, while the job market offers new and increased possibilities.

However, Russia itself is also affected by climate change in a negative sense. The melting permafrost may force the country to rebuild its existing infrastructure, and also releases anthrax, creating a potential health hazard. Scientists are also concerned that thawing permafrost could possibly unleash infectious microbes.

Moreover, Russia will also need to face rising sea levels and the increased risk of floods, and also suffers from wildfires threatening the Lake Baikal region. However, Russia seemingly rejects the role of humanity could play in mitigating the worst effects of climate change.

What seems to be of note within the current debate about the future of climate change action is that Russia poses a bigger threat to the future than the U.S. does. Whereas the Trump administration’s categorical denial of and skepticism towards climate change is unlikely to extend past his administration’s term, Russia’s stance – much like its government itself – is unlikely to change.

As Vladimir Putin himself mentioned several times, the climate change is a problem of adaptation, meaning that local communities in problematic regions will (need to) adjust to climate changes. Moreover, Russia has already started working on a national climate change adaptation strategy. If climate change is not reversed, some places will become more livable, some less. For Russia, large parts of its territory will gain a new agricultural potential, given the rising temperatures and the gradual thawing of the soil. In this regard, Russia could therefore derive significant benefits, not only in terms of increasing its share of oil and fossil fuel production, but also in terms of diversifying its economy.

The national narrative of climate change is constructed only positively in Russia. According to the latest surveys, Russians are among the least concerned people on the planet by the threat of global climate change. This particular discourse is driven by a wider trend within the Russian scientific community, which postulates that climate change is cyclical and autogenic. The Russian government and Russian scientists have only recently begun to accept the world’s scientific consensus that fossil fuel use is driving climate change.

To sum up, Russia can derive more potential benefits from climate change than any other country. While the whole world watches the U.S. withdraw from Paris Agreement, worries about how the future of combating climate change will look like and who will take up the leadership of this battle, Russia should instead be the center of our attention. The EU should try to influence Russia on the issue of climate change and underline the role of the EU as both a leader and a driving force on combating climate change.

Alžběta Jurčová

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