A Greener Russia? Moscow’s Agenda at the COP26 Climate Summit
As the COP26 UN climate change summit takes place in Glasgow, our planet’s prospects look bleak. Glaciers are melting, the space left for sustainable land use is in short supply, forest fires and desertification look set to become the grim new normal, and the seasonal patterns of the great rivers will turn densely populated areas of Asia into the main sources of climate migrants.
These environmental processes did not start just yesterday, and will not end tomorrow, but their political dimension emerged relatively recently, and is gathering pace at lightning speed. In the last couple of years, a number of countries have suddenly woken up to the climate emergency thanks to a series of crises since the start of the decade.
As a result, the summit in Glasgow, which had been expected to yield a voluntary and consensual increase in individual countries’ obligations to reduce emissions, began in a very different atmosphere to that envisioned by its organizers. It’s taking place against the backdrop of the pandemic, an acute energy crisis, and an impending crisis of food supplies, all as the leading countries’ ability to reach a binding agreement on anything is worse than at any point in the last thirty years.
The experience of the pandemic has convinced national governments that no matter how global the problem, it still falls to them to answer to their own nationals. No amount of praise from developed countries will make up for that.
This displacement of responsibility—from talk of future generations and “our shared home, planet Earth” to nationals of individual states—manifested itself even at the planning stage of the summit. The leaders of China, Russia, Brazil, India, and other countries unveiled their plans for adapting to climate change, but decided not to attend the summit. Their rationale is clear: they acknowledge the problem and are ready to address it seriously, but they will not commit to obligations to the developed West.
Readiness to engage in a meaningful discussion about additional obligations on cutting emissions is for now inextricably linked to the vulgar question of who is going to pay for this green future. Following the signing of the Paris Climate Accords in 2015, developed countries pledged to give $100 billion to developing countries for that purpose by 2018. But it’s already 2021, and the most memorable concrete financial decision is the EU’s plan to introduce a carbon tax on imports from countries not doing enough to fight climate change.
It would be amiss, however, to accuse the BRICS countries—and indeed other developing nations with international ambitions—of crude materialism and refusing to work on climate policy without financial aid from the West. China, India, and—most recently—Russia have also all committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2060. Moscow finalized its pledge on October 29, just days before the start of the summit, when the government passed the 2050 low-carbon strategy.
Russia has undergone a real green revolution in 2020–2021. Long-held skepticism with regard to global warming has been dropped: there is too much evidence of it uncomfortably close to home. Frequent devastating flooding in Russia’s Far East, collapsing buildings in the Far North, industrial accidents caused by the melting of the permafrost, and severe drought in Russia’s south constantly expose any conspiracy theories about the fight against climate change for the falsehoods that they are.
As a result, in less than two years Russia has clearly formulated its climate priorities, including the climate emergency in its National Defense Strategy for the first time, implementing indicative planning on achieving the goals set out in its low-carbon strategy, and initiating its first projects for the transition over to green energy.
The clearest affirmation that Russia is taking the green agenda seriously is the lobbying hype around the above documents, the obvious concern of large companies, and the industriousness of the regional governors in attempting to get a feel for the opportunities and threats linked to climate change. By the start of COP26 in Glasgow, Moscow had managed to formulate its own priorities in this field, which reflect the individual circumstances of Russia’s energy mix and its unique natural capital.
Now it only remains to convince the rest of the world—or at the very least, the biggest importers of Russian commodities and potential users of the Northern Sea Route—of the soundness of these approaches. The truth about the fight against climate change today is that it’s not enough to be holier than the pope when it comes to green regulation and protecting the environment. What’s more important is that that green saintliness is recognized by buyers of goods and investors in projects.
Russia has three climate principles that the delegation is promoting at COP26 and, most likely, will continue to well after the Glasgow summit. The first is technological neutrality, which involves recognizing atomic energy as green: something that the Europeans had fiercely resisted right up until the current energy crisis. Since it became apparent that Nord Stream 2 could give Germany a key role in EU energy, however, France has become a lot more open to the idea of classifying nuclear power as a green energy source.
Secondly, Moscow proposes focusing less on cutting emissions than on their absorption. This is not just about Russia’s vast carbon-absorbing forests, but about new climate risks, too. The gas hydrates released by the melting of the permafrost are concentrated primarily in the East Siberian Sea and could severely damage Russia’s energy mix.
The third and final principle is unifying both the international system of calculating carbon units and approaches to establishing a market for them. Russia proposes creating a system similar to zip codes: they differ greatly from country to country, but that doesn’t prevent letters from being sent. The international post service has worked ceaselessly throughout wars, pandemics, and revolutions for nearly one hundred and fifty years. So why can’t a similar system be devised for calculating carbon units, since they are such a concern today for all of mankind?
Each of Russia’s proposed principles potentially has both fierce opponents and interested partners. The many issues surrounding green energy will not be resolved once and for all in Glasgow. It’s already clear that the world has changed a lot since the heightened expectations of early 2020, when it seemed that all of humanity was ready to join forces to save the planet. Since then, attempts at salvation have risen sharply in number and become localized. There’s a good chance, therefore, that the world’s powers will not take on serious additional obligations to other countries instead of to their own people.
Only incurable optimists like the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, really expect to achieve any major success at COP26. Yet there is still some cause for optimism: it’s not so rare, after all, that the interests of an individual country’s nationals coincide with those of the planet.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Anastasia Likhacheva is a director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Relations and a deputy dean for research at the faculty of world economy and international affairs at the Higher School of Economics.
Photo by PMO Barbados shared in the public domain. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.