Russia changes its tune on climate change. What’s behind the shift?

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters/File
An engineer inspects equipment at a solar electric station in Abakan, Khakassia Republic, Russia, Dec. 17, 2015. The alternative-energy industry is poised to take off among Russians.

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Russia is a place where industrial-scale fossil fuel energy is traditionally so plentiful that city dwellers in centrally heated apartments still sometimes throw their windows open in midwinter to cool off.

So the Kremlin’s pledges at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, including a strategy to make Russia carbon neutral by 2060, are unprecedented. Even some of the Kremlin’s toughest critics now agree that Russian authorities have finally accepted the need for serious action to meet the climate challenge.

Why We Wrote This

Russia showed signs at COP26 that it is finally getting serious about the threat of climate change. But the Kremlin’s shift in thought may need to go further to prepare the country for the future.

But critics point out that, while the progress is real, there is a lot less to Russia’s new pledges than meets the eye. Even if all current goals are met, renewable energy will only be around 6% of Russia’s total by 2035, while European targets call for it to be at least 20% by that time. And Russia’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 relies on the carbon-absorbing capacities of Russian forests and not on reforming the country’s power grid.

“The Russian government is sincere, but they still do not plan to meet climate neutrality targets by changing the energy balance,” says researcher Tatiana Lanshina. “A lot of things are going to have to change, because the world is changing whether we like it or not.”

Solar panels have begun to sprout among Russia’s many dachas, the often remote and humble cottages where millions spend their summers. Thanks to new laws, significant state support for renewable energy, and a higher level of public climate consciousness, the alternative-energy industry is finally poised to take off among notoriously hydrocarbon-addicted Russians.

This may not sound remarkable to those in the West, where small-scale renewable energy has been a going concern for decades.

But Russia is a place where industrial-scale fossil fuel energy is traditionally so plentiful and cheap that city dwellers in centrally heated apartments still sometimes throw their windows open in midwinter just to cool off. The country only got around to ratifying the Paris climate accords two years ago, and President Vladimir Putin once remarked that a bit of warming would be good for the wheat crop.

Why We Wrote This

Russia showed signs at COP26 that it is finally getting serious about the threat of climate change. But the Kremlin’s shift in thought may need to go further to prepare the country for the future.

The embrace of solar power among dacha owners is just part of a broader shift in thinking about climate change and alternative energy across Russian society. Even some of the Kremlin’s toughest critics now agree that Russian authorities have finally accepted the need for serious action to meet the climate challenge. Though Mr. Putin was criticized for not attending the Glasgow COP26 climate summit in person, the Russian delegation did make some solid, unprecedented pledges, including a legally enacted strategy to make Russia carbon neutral by 2060, and joining the international agreement to end deforestation by 2030.

But while the Kremlin is getting active on climate change, environmentalists say authorities are not doing enough to prepare Russia for the world that is coming. Though the government is taking positive steps, they say, it is not addressing the changes that Russia’s power grid and carbon-dependent economy will require in order to keep up with more proactively green parts of the world like Europe.

A green Russia?

After decades of foot-dragging, Russian governments on all levels have visibly begun to support green efforts and make resources available, especially for renewable energy projects.

A 1 trillion ruble (about $15 billion) federal program is already providing funding and other support for renewable energy startups. The eight-year pilot project, extended this year until 2035, has seen construction of 63 solar energy farms, 15 wind power plants, and 3 small hydro stations, says Alexei Zhikharev, director of the Russia Renewable Energy Development Association (RREDA). He says the pace will pick up now. “Electricity from renewable energy generation is already cheaper than that from traditional generation facilities, and the costs are rapidly falling,” he says.

Moscow now has Europe’s largest fleet of electric buses, almost 1,000 of them, which the city’s deputy mayor Maxim Liksutov says will reduce the city’s carbon emissions by 86 thousand tons next year. “We expect all the routes will be operated by ecofriendly buses by 2030,” he says. Russia’s second city of St. Petersburg is building electric river boats to replace its diesel-powered fleet.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
One of Moscow's new fleet of electric buses, the largest such fleet in Europe, travels along a road in Moscow, Feb. 19, 2021. The words on the bus read: "It's an electric bus."

The Pacific island of Sakhalin, near Japan, has become a prime laboratory for the Kremlin’s newfound enthusiasm. The heavily forested region aims to become carbon-neutral by 2025 in a trial project that will involve “gasification, alternative energy, clean transport, energy efficiency, and sustainable forest management programs,” according to its governor, Valery Limarenko. He said that the region’s main industry, oil and gas extraction, is ready to make all the needed changes to meet that target.

Dacha dwellers are starting to come on board too. Sergei Zigunov, deputy director of EcoNRJ, a company that sells and installs Chinese-made solar panels, says that energy independence is the basic appeal for them. Plus, thanks to a new law, people can now hook their home system up to the electricity grid, and sell any surplus back to the company. Even in sun-starved Russia, he says, solar panels – installation of which costs upwards of $1,000 – can pay for themselves within five years.

“We’re a small company, but we install around 400 systems a year nowadays,” he says. “It’s not much, but interest is growing fast, and people are warming up to the idea of energy alternatives.”

Generally, environmentalists and government seem to now be pushing in the same direction, after many years of tension.

“We get a lot of cooperation from local authorities, who now seem eager to provide support and funding for environmental clean-up efforts, recycling, and just about anything that looks green,” says Alexandra Usacheva, head of the Clean North, a volunteer group that promotes environmental goals in the European-Arctic region of Arkhangelsk. “Most of all, they are inviting us into the schools, to teach ecological values to young people. Current public opinion may be slow to catch on, but the next generation is going to be amazing on environmental issues.”

Not everyone in Russia’s scientific establishment agrees with the new line. Arkhangelsk-based Alexander Kirilov, director of Russia’s largest Arctic national park, says that ice sheets may be receding, and the climate warming, but it’s nothing to worry about.

“In my opinion, there is no catastrophe happening,” he says “Even if global warming is taking place, it’s not as awful for humans and wildlife as some people say. We monitor the [Arctic] wildlife, and we have concluded that the number of animals is growing and their stress levels are not increasing. ... Climate change has been occurring for decades, but it’s caused by natural cycles. Human activity has accelerated changes that were already happening.”

“The world is changing whether we like it or not”

Critics point out that, while the progress is real, there is a lot less to Russia’s new pledges than meets the eye. Russia, the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is starting far behind the rest of the world.

While energy produced from renewable sources was about 10% of the global total last year, in Russia it was less than half a percent. Even if all current goals are met, renewable energy will only be around 6% of Russia’s total by 2035, while European targets call for it to be at least 20% by that time, according to Mr. Zhikharev of the RREDA.

“We have some good beginnings, and a lot of potential, but it’s not enough,” he says. “One major need is to develop green financing tools, and make them widely available to investors.”

Mr. Putin’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 relies heavily on the carbon-absorbing capacities of Russian forests – the world’s largest, which occupy about 20% of its territory – and not on making major changes to the country’s power grid, which currently relies on gas (46%), coal (18%), hydro (18%), and nuclear sources (17%) for electricity generation.

“The Russian government is sincere, but they still do not plan to meet climate neutrality targets by changing the energy balance,” says Tatiana Lanshina, a senior researcher at RANEPA, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. “They think they can do this by emphasizing our forests, hydro, and nuclear. But a lot of things are going to have to change, because the world is changing whether we like it or not.”

Experts say that climate-driven disasters such as floods, wildfires, and melting permafrost have played a role in focusing Kremlin minds on the problem of man-made climate change. But an even more forceful factor is the worldwide campaign to abandon fossil fuels, which represent at least a quarter of Russia’s GDP and 60% of its exports. The European Union’s plan to impose a carbon tax will cost Russian businesses heavily. Indeed, as the world moves toward net zero carbon in coming decades, much of Russia’s industrial and energy infrastructure risks obsolescence.

“Things are starting to move in Russia, but not thanks to Putin. It’s because if all the actions world leaders are pledging happen, there will be no consumers for Russian fuel, and Russia will be economically isolated in the world,” says Vladimir Slivyak, a veteran Russian environmental activist.

“Now all kinds of projects – be it solar, hydrogen, wind, small hydro, carbon capture – are in vogue and getting support from authorities. That’s good. But Russia could be doing much more. And it will be doing more in the future, of that I am confident. Not because Putin decided, but because the world is on the move and Russia can’t afford to be left behind.”

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