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Global Viewpoint

Climate change: Will Russian heat wave prompt serious action from Moscow?

In recent years, Russia viewed the threat of climate change in naive or cavalier terms. But this summer's devastating weather was a wake-up call.

By Anthony Giddens / August 27, 2010


Will the heat wave and drought that have created so much havoc in Russia cause the leadership in that country to take climate change more seriously? The answer is important not only for Russia itself but for the world community. Russia is the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, behind only China and the United States.

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Until recently the Russian attitude toward the threats posed by climate change was cavalier to say the least. At an international climate change conference in 2003, then-President Putin said of global warming that “We would spend less on fur coats....” Russia endorsed the Kyoto Protocol but as a somewhat cynical act of Realpolitik on the part of all concerned. The United States had refused to sign up, and world leaders were desperate to reach the target number of signatories without which the whole endeavor would have fallen apart.

As an element of the deal, Russia was put on track to gain membership in the WTO and also allocated a large number of credits for emissions reductions made, even though these resulted wholly from the closing down of antiquated industrial enterprises that had become uncompetitive after 1989.

Naive view

Many in the Russian leadership believed that climate change would on balance be beneficial for Russia. It would open up the mineral wealth of the Arctic as the ice melts, create new shipping routes along the country’s northern coasts, and allow an extension of agriculture into currently infertile areas. Taking concrete action to reduce emissions, on the other hand, would hamper Russia’s economic growth.

The disasters of this summer should have brought home the naivete of these views. They are a stark warning of what lies ahead if global warming is not held in check. Russia is highly vulnerable to the rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather that uncontrolled climate change will bring in its wake. This year the country has lost some 25 percent of its grain production.

Flooding will be a major problem in the future for coastal cities such as St. Petersburg, as will changes in the flow of rivers, storms, melting ice, and many other hazards.

In fact, Russia’s leaders started to change their tone even before the events of this summer. A climate plan was endorsed by the government in 2009, even if it has little to offer in the way of practical proposals.

President Medvedev announced in the run-up to the climate change meetings in Copenhagen that Russia would accept a target of reducing its carbon emissions by 15 percent to 20 percent over 1990 levels, later elevated to 20 percent to 25 percent.

Critics have pointed out that even the higher figures would mean that Russian carbon emissions actually increase, because these targets will be reached in any case because of the collapse of Russian heavy industry. Yet they do mark a positive and potentially encouraging shift of emphasis from the past. Mr. Medvedev has stressed the importance of achieving greater energy efficiency, a key issue in Russia given the profligate way in which energy is used.