Russia joins the climate crusade – in its own way

Why We Wrote This

Oil-dependent Russia seems to be showing signs of taking climate change more seriously. It marks a shifting of thought, but perhaps not yet a very deep one.

Anton Vaganov/Reuters
Activists participate in the Global Climate Strike, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 20, 2019. According to Russian news reports, the Kremlin is planning to set up an officially approved Green Party to harness what polls show is a newfound public concern about environmental issues.

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Vladimir Putin once joked that a bit of global warming would be good for Russia because “we would spend less on fur coats.” But the Russian president doesn’t appear to be laughing anymore.

In September, Russia surprised everyone by ratifying the Paris climate agreement. According to Russian news reports, the Kremlin is planning to set up an officially approved Green Party to harness what polls show is a newfound public concern about environmental issues.

Experts are divided over the Kremlin’s newly discovered concern about global warming and even optimists complain that, at least so far, it doesn’t go much beyond rhetoric. 

Indeed, there is less than meets the eye to Russia’s commitment under the Paris agreement to keep its carbon emissions at least 25% below the 1990 level. The country is already more than 30% below the 1990 level due to the massive deindustrialization that followed the collapse of the USSR.

“Maybe I am a bit cynical,” says longtime environmental activist Vladimir Slivyak, “but it seems to me there is actually room to increase emissions under this commitment.”

Wildfires raged across Siberia last summer, breaking all records and blanketing an area the size of the European Union in thick smoke.

Arctic ice, receding at a record pace, revealed five new islands in the Russian far north this year that had been hidden under the ice sheets for all of recorded human history.

Russian scientists aboard a research ship near the northern coast of Siberia last week were amazed to discover a massive eruption of methane bubbles from the ocean floor. The huge clouds of the super-greenhouse gas suggest that the underlying permafrost is melting faster than anyone could have anticipated.

This year’s annual report by the national meteorological service found that the air temperatures over Russia’s landmass have been warming at up to 2.5 times the global average.

Those are just a few of the data points that have the Kremlin sitting up, taking notice, and perhaps for the first time, making steps to do something about the galloping threat of climate change. 

Russia surprised everyone in September by ratifying the Paris climate agreement, after years of dithering. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once joked that a bit of warming would be good for his country because “we would spend less on fur coats,” doesn’t appear to be laughing anymore. According to Russian news reports, the Kremlin is planning to set up an officially approved Green Party to harness what polls show is a newfound public concern about environmental issues.

Change in Russia – for better or worse – generally comes from the top. Experts are divided over the Kremlin’s newly discovered concern about global warming and even optimists complain that, at least so far, it doesn’t go much beyond rhetoric. Critics argue that Russian authorities are still in denial about the sweeping adjustments that will be needed to meet the challenge. Some Russian energy companies use global warming as a marketing opportunity in developing countries, advocating the replacement of coal with natural gas, and other fossil fuels with nuclear power – both major Russian exports.

“There is a new generation of advisers to Russian economic ministries, to the Kremlin, who understand the science much better than the previous ones did, and the president is taking advice from them. That is good,” says Alexey Kokorin, author of a report on Russia’s response to climate change for the World Wildlife Fund. “The problem is recognized, but the sense of urgency is absent. It’s mostly seen as a problem to be dealt with in the future.”

Mr. Putin has made remarks on the international stage lately that contrast Russia’s acceptance of the Paris agreement with the backsliding ways of the United States under President Donald Trump. But Russian authorities are still kicking the can down the road in terms of taking real action at home.

For example, the looming danger of melting permafrost should be ringing alarm bells right now, say experts. More than a million people live in big Russian cities, such as Yakutsk and Norilsk, which were built in Soviet times on piles driven into the icy ground. As the ground melts underneath them, those cities face destruction.

Dmitry Solovyov/Reuters/File
An aerial view shows thermokarst lakes outside the town of Chersky in northeast Siberia, Aug. 28, 2007. For millennia, layers of animal waste and other organic matter left behind by the creatures that used to roam the Arctic tundra have been sealed inside the frozen permafrost. Now climate change is thawing the permafrost and lifting this prehistoric ooze from suspended animation.

“The melting permafrost is still being seen as a gradual process, one that can be managed,” says Dr. Kokorin. “Of course infrastructure will become much more expensive, and it’s hard to see how planned railroads can be built.”

Indeed, there is less than meets the eye to Russia’s commitment under the Paris agreement to keep its carbon emissions at least 25% below the 1990 level. Even though Russia is the world’s fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it is already more than 30% below the 1990 level due to the massive deindustrialization that followed the collapse of the USSR almost 30 years ago.

“Maybe I am a bit cynical, but it seems to me there is actually room to increase emissions under this commitment,” says environmental activist Vladimir Slivyak. “Russia is lagging behind other countries in actual deeds to combat global warming for one major reason: Nobody wants to confront fossil fuels. It seems that Russia intends to rely on fossil fuels for as long as possible, and do the absolute minimum in terms of investing in renewable energy, and that means no real action on climate change.”

According to a recent poll by the state-funded Public Opinion Foundation, 55% of Russians believe their ecological surroundings are worsening, while 68% think the authorities aren’t doing enough about it. Global events, such as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s rousing speech to the United Nations General Assembly, have inspired mostly youthful climate protests in dozens of Russian cities in recent months.

Mr. Putin chided the teen activist as “poorly informed” and launched into a defense of fossil fuels as the key driver of development in the modern world. He acknowledged, however, that it is right for young people to “focus their attention on today’s challenging problems, including environmental protection.”

Which may be why the Kremlin is reportedly planning to put resources into creating a Green Party to adorn Russia’s largely ceremonial spectrum of political parties with an ecologically conscious one, say experts.

“Civil society is paying more and more attention to ecological issues, so this would be an obvious way for the Kremlin to steal that thunder,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Mr. Slivyak says there have been several attempts to establish a Green Party in Russia, and all of them failed.

“There are Green parties in Europe, that are actually part of decision-making, and if you ask if I’d like to see something like that in Russia, the answer is yes,” he says. “But, in the past, when independent activists tried to set up such a party, it failed for lack of resources. It is very hard to get a nationwide party of any kind off the ground in Russia without a lot of backing.

“On the other hand, in the couple of cases where the authorities supported attempts to create an environmentally oriented party, it has failed due to reliance on those authorities – because they want to maintain control,” he says. “This idea is to create a green-flavored party that is otherwise a copy of other parties. In other words, just a state-sponsored PR instrument for elections. Who is going to vote for that?

“So, even though we are facing a climate emergency, it is very hard to see how our existing political process can ever square this circle.”

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