The issue of climate change has gained unprecedented traction in Russia over the last year, with a proliferation of events on topics ranging from climate change’s direct physical impact on the country to the indirect effects of other nations’ pursuit of decarbonization. The government is taking steps including the creation of interagency groups on energy transition and the designation of climate change as a priority issue.

Last year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) demonstrated that despite all of this, the international community is largely unclear about where Russia stands on climate issues. In the eyes of the world, Russia remains a conservative producer of fossil fuels that is skeptical of climate change. This image of disengagement is fueled by the fact that the country is neither a beneficiary of nor a contributor to international sources of funding for climate programs.

Russia’s delegation to COP26 was quite large, numbering over 300 people. Yet its size belied the country’s serious shortage of climate experts. Over the last few years, many former government officials with climate experience have moved to the private sector, joining oil and metallurgical companies within which there is increasing concern about decarbonization. Dozens of them went to Glasgow to learn more about the global climate agenda and assess potential risks, especially from the EU’s new carbon border adjustment mechanism.

Representatives of Russian officialdom have acknowledged the seriousness of the climate problem and the risk posed by it to the country. They have signaled that Russia is open to international cooperation and called for the lifting of sanctions and other restrictions extending to the green and low-carbon sectors, which have left Russian proposals submitted through the Global Environment Facility in limbo since 2014.

Green and, in particular, climate cooperation is seen by some Russian and foreign researchers as one of the last remaining opportunities for partnership between Russia and the West. In this respect, observers have been encouraged by U.S.-Chinese cooperation in this area, as well as by repeated pronouncements by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Ruslan Edelgeriyev.

Russia’s climate priorities have shifted significantly in recent years. The Russian objective of reducing emissions by 30 percent of their 1990 levels by 2030 still looks unambitious, and has in fact already been attained. However, Russia also seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, a goal comparable to those set by other major emitters such as the United States and the EU (2050), China (2060), and India (2070).

We are still in the dark as to how this goal is to be met. Furthermore, many Russian and foreign experts have cast doubt on Russia’s plan to reduce emissions by increasing forest absorption. Yet Russia has been drawing attention to its forests and their contribution to emissions absorption for years. Russian scientists and politicians have pushed for the introduction of a new forest accounting methodology that would increase the absorption rate and thereby elevate Russia’s record in this respect.

However, Russia’s prospects on this issue do not look all that promising. UN climate negotiations mostly focus on tropical rainforests in developing countries, and preservation programs have generally been centered on the provision of assistance to such nations. This is likely to remain the case, since other countries with vast northern or boreal forests, such as Canada, Sweden, Finland, and to some extent the United States, have not joined Russia in raising this issue.

Russia’s desire to meet its climate obligations exclusively through its forests, from a sudden surge in forest absorption rates to compensatory forest-related climate projects, is viewed with skepticism by international and Russian experts alike. Moscow also faces questions about the sustainability of its forest management, as well as its statistics. Russian forest data is far from complete and covers just 15–20 percent of the country’s forest resources. For its part, the UN only counts emissions and absorptions caused by human activity.

At COP26, Russia signed the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, undertaking “to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.” Yet it refrained from supporting other declarations, including the Global Methane Pledge, which seeks to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Moscow claims that the text of the pledge needed more work, and has kept the door open to joining the pledge as an observer down the line. Russia also declined to pledge to phase out coal-fired power.

Appealing to reason over emotion, Russia has signaled that it is reluctant to support new obligations, pledges, and other initiatives while existing ones fall short of full implementation. Moscow also opposes attempts to link climate to issues such as gender, indigenous, and other rights, for which it has drawn criticism from civic leaders and international observers. It regards with ambivalence the surge in climate activism and the growth of environmental protest, and resists the increasing global tendency of the climate agenda to serve as an umbrella for other issues, including social ones such as inequality and indigenous rights.

Overall, Russia has a serious problem communicating its positions on climate issues. Even though the country has seriously revisited its approach in this area, it remains mostly quiet in the international arena. There are some exceptions, of course, such as the state development corporation VEB and state atomic agency Rosatom, both of which actively engaged with the media in Glasgow. But no coordinated effort to work with the media has emerged as of yet.

Russia has long had its own pavilion at UN climate conferences, using it to promote the country’s efforts on climate change. While a positive development, this outreach largely focuses on the activities of the government, leading scientific institutions, and big business, to the exclusion of what smaller participants such as Russia’s regions are doing, as well as green start-ups, which are leaving the country in increasing numbers.

For all its growing interest in climate issues and its increasing involvement in international climate negotiations, then, Russia continues to be hindered by its aversion to criticism and to the involvement of other interested parties like civil society. As such, it is no surprise that Russia’s actions and positions on climate issues often remain unclear and even unknown to the international community.

This material is part of the Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue project, supported by the EU Delegation to Russia. More info: http://eu-russia-expertnetwork.eu/

By:
  • Angelina Davydova