Russia Says Climate Change Is a Big Priority. But Its Real Goal at COP 26 Will Be Slowing Down Progress

When a Kremlin spokesperson announced last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be attending the U.N. COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in person, he wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t because Putin didn’t care. On the contrary, Dmitry Peskov told reporters, climate change is “one of our foreign policy’s most important priorities.”

This is a country most directly affected by the warming climate. But as the Russian delegation, minus its leader, heads into next week’s COP26 negotiations over updated carbon emission reduction targets, it could well turn out that Russia’s priority is less about combatting climate change than it is about changing the narrative over how fast, and by how much, nations should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
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Russia is not only the 4ThIt is the largest source of greenhouse gasses that have been heating the planet to dangerous levels. The country’s economy relies heavily on the production of hydrocarbons such as oil, natural gas, and coal. It is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, and fossil fuel sales account for 36% of the country’s budget, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Ambitious global targets to reduce emissions and diversify energy supply away from fossil fuel consumption threaten both the Russian economy and its influence on the geopolitical stage—Russia currently supplies more than a third of the European Union’s natural gas supply.

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A global transition away from fossil fuels is, for Russia, “an existential threat,” says Candace Rondeaux, director of the Future Frontlines program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. “The entire evolution of Russia’s foreign policy over the last 20 years has been predicated on leveraging Russia’s pole position as the leading fossil fuel producer in the world, right up there with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.”

While Russian oligarchs may personally profit from investments in the country’s oil and gas, the rest of the country is reliant on the revenues they bring in. “Price stability in the fossil fuel sector ensures sovereign wealth and pays for pensions. It’s the backbone of the military industrial complex. And it is really one of the only means by which Russia can get a consistent stream of hard revenue streaming into the country,” says Rondeaux.

Russia won’t interfere in negotiations between countries, as they work out their promises, said Heather Conley, Director of Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program, Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, the team behind the scenes will make sure the timeframe for nations to agree to stop using fossil fuels is as long as it can be. “The Russians have a pretty clear economic strategy to 2030, and that is to pump out fossil fuels. [At COP] they will try to use all of their political and economic influence as a lever to slow down the move to renewables in order to buy time.”

Despite a global push for nations to zero out their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—the world’s best chance for keeping temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius—Russia has opted for a 2060 target, the same as China. (The U.S., the world’s second largest emitter of global greenhouse gasses after China, has agreed to the 2050 goal. India is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but has yet to make a commitment.

Despite this delay, however, it’s not obvious how sincere Russia is with their pledge. Their pledge included a commitment to cut their 2030 emission to 70% below 1990 levels. Although it may seem impressive, this goal is not very meaningful due to widespread industrialization since the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union. Activists claim that Russia can increase its emissions in the eight years to reach its goal.

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Russia is determined to show an engaged partnership with the global community. But it also has expanded its petrochemical production plants and launched a new transport network and pipeline project that will double Russia’s gas and coal exports to China. When the price of natural gas skyrocketed in Europe in early October, Putin suggested that the energy crisis was linked to Europe’s shift to renewable energy sources, and that a slower transition that focused on natural gas—Russian, of course—was the better option.

“The Russians have adapted their talking points to include a climate dimension, but it’s rhetorical,” says Conley. “Their actions—the doubling of fossil fuel exports because of their economic situation—demonstrate their reality. They recognize this. [climate change] now, but they’re just not going to do anything about it.”

That may be because they can’t afford to. Russia will likely have a harder time decarbonizing than even China, says Nikos Tsafos, an energy expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Russia’s key industries include the oil, coal and gas exploitation. However, Russia has not invested much in alternative employment options. Nor does Russia have the same innovation push that has made China the world’s biggest producer of electric vehicles and solar panels.

Climate and geography further complicate matters. “This may sound silly, but Russia is a cold country,” says Tsafos. Russia currently relies upon tens or thousands of miles worth of pipelines for heating its remote population. “The real challenge for Russia’s decarbonization is not the political economy of hydrocarbons or even revenue. It’s keeping 140 million people warm in the winter using a different energy source. That’s not going to be easy,” says Tsafos.

Tsafos, whose work focuses on the world’s major oil and gas producers, says hydrocarbon states tend to go through distinct phases when it comes to the pending global energy transition. “The first stage is denial, and the Russians have gone through that. The second is the fire sale, where they recognize that hey, this resource may not be valuable in 30 years, so I should sell more of it now.”

Tsafos said that the third stage would involve acceptance of the necessity to diversify. Russia has other plans. On Oct. 20, Putin’s climate envoy Ruslan Edelgeriyev argued to Bloomberg that the state-run natural gas behemoth Gazprom should be exempted from sanctions if it was being called upon to reduce methane leaks, another source of greenhouse gas emissions. “Let’s take climate projects out of sanctions, so that Gazprom has access to green financing, access to technologies,” he said. Argumenting Gazprom is a climate project seems a bit extreme.

Tsafos’ allusion to classic psychological studies on the five stages of grief skipped a step. Third stage: bargaining. Russia will bargain at the COP26 negotiations as if it were its existence. This is true in a sense.


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