There is no chance of reaching the Paris Climate Goals by 2030 and very little hope of turning the world carbon neutral by 2060. Yet, China is rapidly becoming one of the most important beneficiaries of the new "green" agenda, as it produces up to half the world's electric vehicles and close to 80 percent of its solar panels. Russia instead stays almost entirely outside the new "green" mainstream.
Several speeches, articles, and interviews by leading Russian public figures – from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Head of the Russian Accounts Chamber Alexei Kudrin – present a strange combination of hatred, fear, and unattainable and fanciful hopes about a "green" agenda for the country. However, the majority of Russians cannot really imagine that windmills and solar panels may sideline oil, gas deposits, and pipelines.
Putin Considers The EU's "Carbon Tax" To Be Politically Motivated
It can be said that Russia's "green" discourse consists of three main leitmotifs:
First, Russia is climate change's major – and innocent – victim. Many Russian scholars argue (and President Putin reiterates the argument) that the effects of global warming are seen more in Russia than in any other region of the world. Quite recently, Putin pointed out that the temperature change in the Russian Far North exceeds the global average by 2.5 times. Russian experts often cite the devastating effect of global warming on the permafrost that has caused ecological disasters in many areas of the country, like the oil reservoir spill in Norilsk that is considered Russia's most disastrous environmental accident.
At the same time, Russian politicians opine that Russia is one of the most active "pro-ecology nations" since its carbon dioxide emissions have remained significantly below their 1990 levels (indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian industry contracted significantly). It is worth noting that Russia has increased neither its oil and gas production nor its overall energy consumption since 1990, while Kazakhstan increased oil and gas production by factors of 3.4 and 6.1, and China consumes now roughly five times more energy than it did in 1990. Hence, according to the Kremlin, the world has nothing to claim from Russia.
Second, the West is guilty for climate change. Russian experts claim that those responsible for global warming are not only the countries that produce carbon dioxide and other toxic substances, but also those who consume their exports. This argument is rather weak. More than 60 percent of U.S. imports from China consist of high-tech goods and staples; goods that are not too energy intensive, while China consumes all the steel, cement, and chemical goods it produces and burns more coal every year than the rest of the world combined. Nevertheless, the idea that the U.S. and Europe are the main guilty parties for global warming is omnipresent in the Russian debate.
Furthermore, Russia argues that its energy is much "cleaner" than that consumed on average globally. Putin recently stated that around 40 percent of the energy consumed in Russia is generated from natural gas, while the world's average is less than 25 percent. Russia also opines that natural sources of carbon dioxide absorption should be considered: According to the Kremlin, since Russia accounts for 20 percent of the world's forests, its net emissions are much lower than other regions'.
Third, The West's global "green" agenda is masterminded to restrict and slow down the developing countries' economic progress. This view, shared by Putin, says that the European Union's "carbon tax" on Russian exporters is politically motivated.
Russian academics and experts suggest that the government should side with BRICS countries and look for allies in Asia and Latin America to soften the requirements that the West wants to impose on the developing world. Moscow argues that the entire responsibility for climate change lies on the consumer society built in the West since the mid-20th century and therefore the West should compensate the developing countries. Hence, if China is trying to reap economic benefits from the new environmentally friendly global economy, Russia wants political benefits from playing the role of leader of the "poor and deprived" people of the world.
Russian Elite Not Concerned About 2050
Russia may not care much about climate change, after all. According to the Presidential Decree registered under a telling number 666 on November 4, 2020, carbon dioxide emissions are authorized to increase until 2030 by up to 40 percent above current levels, while the National Strategy for low-carbon development does not exclude a chance that Russia will not start to cut its emissions till 2050. Furthermore, the Federal Law "On governmental regulation of greenhouse gases emissions" (No 296-ФЗ of July 2, 2021) has no norms mandating compensation for emissions made by the industrial sector.
At the base of the Kremlin's refusal to adopt "green" reforms, there is a calculation of Russia's carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. According to the data, Russia's emissions are now formally around 2.16 billion tons compared to the 3.19 billion in 1990, which means a decline of 32.4 percent. Russian statistics also pretend the country's forests annihilate roughly eight (!) times more carbon dioxide than they did 30 years ago, and, based on this assumption – which looks a bit doubtful, to say the least – the Kremlin officials claim that the "net" emissions stay at 1.58 billion tons, thus making the decline in carbon dioxide emissions much bigger (49.3 percent). These calculations and the basing of a lot of documents on them prove that Russia has no serious intentions of joining the global effort to slow and stop climate change. Moreover, just recently this was proved by Russia vetoing the long-awaited UN resolution that for the first time would have defined climate change as a threat to peace, arguing that it may serve "as a pretext by wealthy Western powers to justify meddling in the internal affairs of other countries."
However, the plan to reduce emissions by 2050, or even 2035, seems not to be on the Kremlin's horizon. Most commonly the Russian leadership makes plans for up to five years (and even in those cases the goals are not met). So, what happens in 2050 is of no concern to the current Russian elite.
Another important point is that the benefits of implementing a low-carbon strategy seem negligible compared to potential losses. At the recent Far Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the consequences of de-carbonization were depicted as catastrophic for Russia: by 2035, the country's economy may contract by 4.4 percent, median real disposable incomes by 14 percent, exports by $179 billion, and natural gas, oil, and coal production by 52, 72, and 90 percent correspondingly. Hence, the Kremlin hardly wishes to implement a de-carbonization agenda. In fact, the most recent gas crisis in Europe that resulted in an enormous 37 percent increase in federal budget revenue in 2021 (with an even larger amount of revenues projected for 2022) makes the whole de-carbonization project a bit odd.
Russia Looks For Opportunities That A "Green" Agenda May Open
Nevertheless, Russian politicians have started to think about the unique opportunities that a new "green" agenda may open. The Energy Ministry stated that Russia might even become the world's largest hydrogen supplier. It is worth noting that a national program for developing hydrogen has never been released, but rumors say that "green" hydrogen would be produced from natural gas, which may not be "green" enough for foreign partners. Some Russian analysts also suggest that Russian forests may be used as a unique means to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making Russia an indispensable partner to the developed world. However, one should not forget that Russia, in 2021 alone, has been hit by wildfires that destroyed 17 million hectares of forests – an area four times the size of Switzerland.
On the other hand, Russian policymakers are now concerned with the regional consequences of climate change – such as the melting of the ice in the Arctic. Until the 2010s, Moscow seemed to be happy with such a trend, insisting that if it develops for around 20 years, the Northern Sea Route will become an international shipping line able to compete with the Southern route connecting Asia with Europe via the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal. In recent years, the Kremlin seemingly changed its stance because of U.S. and Chinese claims on freedom of navigation in the Arctic that presumably threaten Russia's interests. Moscow began increasing its military presence in the region as early as at least 2012.
Today, Russia has no distinctive concept for action in a "de-carbonizing" world. The Kremlin looks at this development mainly with fear and cannot believe the West's seriousness about a full departure from a hydrocarbon economy. Meanwhile, Moscow will try to put a brave face on a sorry business and make use of it as means of promoting Russia's international position and stances.
* Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev, Ph.D. in Economics, is a Special Advisor to MEMRI's Russian Media Studies Project.
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