The Ukraine crisis has focused attention on Western Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. But the significance of Russia’s energy policy is much wider than this – and could be central to the global response to climate change, explains Dr Maria Sharmina.
Russia has a pivotal role in shaping the future direction of international climate change mitigation and climate impacts. Russia is an influential international political force, a major emitter of greenhouse gases and a global supplier of fossil fuels. The country’s diverse and extensive territory is, in different parts, both vulnerable and resilient to climate change impacts.
Most of Russia is less at risk from climate change impacts than, for example, nations in Asia. However, drought caused by climate change could lead to many thousands of displaced residents from Central Asia seeking refuge in Russia, as well as generating population movement within Russia.
Water resources are likely to increase in water-abundant areas and decrease in regions prone to drought. Forest fires are likely to become more common. There are already signs of significant change in climate. Average temperatures have risen in the country and Moscow experienced its highest ever recorded temperatures in 2010.
Northern regions of the country would undergo severe rises in temperature, leading to the thawing of permafrost (soil that has stayed frozen for many decades). This will have massive implications for the ecology, economy and population not just of Russia, but also globally. The permafrost contains vast quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. As the permafrost thaws, the methane is released trapping even more heat in the atmosphere. Degradation of the permafrost will also severely affect the stability of Russia’s buildings, pipelines and other infrastructure.
But Russia is conflicted because it is a major supplier of fossil fuels on the world markets and is itself a major emitter of greenhouse gases. To date, the country has been motivated by the commercial opportunities from selling energy, rather than by concern about climate change impacts. Despite this, Russia is a signatory to global treaties that commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
At the national level, it has two main climate change policy decrees: the 2009 Climate Doctrine and the 2011 Climate Action Plan. But neither contains quantitative targets for emission reductions. A recently adopted national target to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 (compared to 1990) in practice implies increasing emissions from today’s levels.
About a dozen ministries share responsibility for implementing national climate policies. While the cost-saving opportunities are recognised – in particular, from greater energy efficiency – there has been no attempt to quantify these.
Central to Russia’s strategy for emission reduction is the move away from heavy subsidies for energy consumption and towards a more market-based approach to energy use. Eliminating subsidies, particularly for low income households, has proven difficult, especially given the challenging economic conditions of recent years. While the subsidy for gas use did fall from a total of $28bn in 2008 to $17bn in 2010, there has been slower progress with the elimination of subsidies for electricity use.
Inconsistent policy-making has caused uncertainty and inhibited investment that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, attempts to diversify Russia’s economy away from its dependence on fossil fuel exports will need substantial investment, funding for which is likely to require increased revenues from the sale of fossil fuels – thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the short term.
There is limited domestic pressure on Russia’s government to adopt policies to reduce emissions. Russia still has a weak civic society and, for NGOs, climate change appears to have a lower priority than other environmental problems. Russian media does little to cover climate change issues and tends towards taking a sensationalist view on the subject.
Surveys have found there is a lower level of public concern over climate change in Russia than in advanced economies and little willingness by most Russians to change behaviour in ways that would reduce carbon emissions. Yet, the awareness of the population about climate change is growing steadily, and this trend is likely to continue as climate change impacts intensify.
Russia’s leaders appear not to recognise potential economic or geopolitical benefits from decarbonising the economy. However, the government’s desire to preserve the status quo in terms of energy policy may be impossible to sustain given the reality of climate change. It is not only Russia’s climate that is at threat, but also its strong economic position as a supplier of oil and gas to international markets.
The global climate situation offers Russia an opportunity to realise its leadership potential, for which an ambitious national carbon emission reduction target could be a first step. Moreover, a semi-authoritarian policy regime in Russia potentially makes it easier to adopt and implement radical emission reductions.
Russia can now choose to either acquiesce to short-term political and financial considerations, or instigate an epoch of national and global action to secure a low carbon and climate-resilient future. Adopting the latter role could quench the nation’s ‘thirst for greatness’ while filling a global void in climate change leadership.
- A longer version of this article is published as ‘Climate change regional review: Russia’, by Maria Sharmina, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin.