In his September 28 address to the UN General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin labeled climate change “a challenge of a planetary scope” and confirmed that Russia is ready to contribute to the global effort to combat it. He also reiterated Russia’s commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 30 percent of the 1990 level by 2030 (as stated in early 2015 in Russia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution).
Russian environmental activists have received Putin’s statements with a great deal of enthusiasm, which is understandable: Twelve years ago, when Russia was still actively debating ratification of the Kyoto Protocol (the international treaty committing countries to reduce emissions), Putin infamously stated that “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.” Furthermore, until very recently Russia has been considered a somewhat problematic actor in international climate change negotiations. Russia experienced a substantial decline in its carbon emissions levels because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, making it quite easy to comply with international climate mitigation policies. Even so, it took almost seven years for Russia to ratify the Protocol (the United States has never ratified it) and even longer to start introducing a more proactive national policy on carbon regulations.
Arguably, climate change has been consistently overshadowed by Russia’s economic interests, which are heavily connected with fossil fuel exports and consumption, and with other socio-political problems such as economic crises or military conflicts. Russia’s vast geographical territory, its diversity of climate zones, and its abundance of natural resources have also contributed to a somewhat distorted understanding of what climate change might mean for the state—including notions of smaller energy bills, an extended harvesting season, and lower numbers of cold-related diseases and deaths. While misunderstandings about the origins and consequences of climate change are not unique to Russia, the country does stand out by its relative lack of an extensive climate discussion at the national level. Until very recently, Russia had relatively little coverage of global warming in the national media, low levels of public awareness and concern in various opinion polls, and a lack of state initiatives.
A change in Russia’s political climate. Since 2009 the discourse in Russia has evolved toward greater recognition of global warming, as demonstrated by then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s attendance at that year’s Copenhagen Climate Change Conference; the acceptance of the 2009 Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation, followed by its implementation plan in 2011; the creation of the Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Sustainable Development in 2012; and the signing of a 2013 presidential decree “On the reduction of GHG emissions.” Just a few weeks ago, in the lead-up to the Paris conference on climate change, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment hosted an international conference titled “Global Climate Challenge: Dialogue between the State, Business and Society,” at which the role of anthropogenic climate change was extensively discussed.
The change in Russia’s attitude toward climate change can be explained, in part, by two factors. First, Russian climatologists are now very clear in their observations of Russia’s climate vulnerability—which is expected to have many more downsides than upsides. Russia’s second Assessment Report of Climate Change and its Consequences stated that, since the mid-1970s, the average temperature in Russia has been increasing by 0.43 degrees Celsius per decade—more than two times faster than the average rate for the planet as a whole. The negative impacts can already be observed through the increased number of extreme weather events (such as heat waves and extremely cold winters), which can cause severe economic and human losses. For instance, according to an Oxfam economic analysis, droughts in 2010 and 2012 led to a sharp decrease in grain production in Russia, which then triggered a rapid increase in crop prices. Some calculations indicate the possibility of a 1.2 percent loss of GDP due to climate-change-related events. In 2012, catastrophic floods in southern Russia caused numerous deaths and a great deal of destruction, and moved Russia into 9th place in the Climate Risk Index for that year (in 2011, Russia occupied the 95th position).
The second factor influencing the national climate policy is the realization that an energy efficiency policy can be economically viable, and that the benefits of economic modernization will allow Russia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without making major economic sacrifices. This realization potentially makes Russia committed to carbon reduction policies regardless of its participation in the global climate regime.
Opportunities and threats. Putin’s statement on the opening day of the Paris conference reinforced the positive trend in Russian climate change policy. Putin reaffirmed Russia’s willingness to take part in the negotiation process. As expected, he particularly emphasized Russia’s forest reserves and the role of technological modernization (which allows a decarbonization of the economy).
When it comes to climate change, Russia now seems to be all over the map. It is considered to be one of the most polluting economies in the world (though far behind the United States and China), mostly because it has some of the largest deposits of fossil fuels. It also has the largest territory in the world that is covered by boreal forest reserves, and vast expanses of permafrost (both representing opportunities and threats for climate mitigation). All of these factors contribute to Russia’s vulnerability, but they also give Russia substantial political leverage during international negotiations. One way or another, Russia will remain an important actor in climate politics, making its climate discussion at the national level relevant not only to Russia itself but also to the whole international community.