Russian government finally gives tepid backing to Paris Climate Accord

The Kremlin.

Publish date: September 24, 2019

Russia said Monday it will implement the Paris Climate Agreement to fight climate change after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev approved a government resolution signifying Moscow’s acceptance of the deal.

Russia said Monday it will implement the Paris Climate Agreement to fight climate change after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev approved a government resolution signifying Moscow’s acceptance of the deal.

The decision follows a brutal summer for the country, which saw wildfires spread across Siberia, melting permafrost warp highways and destabilize buildings, and an entire river in northeastern Yakutia, Russia’s largest region, run almost entirely dry.

Still, Russia’s long-awaited support of the climate accord was tinged with ambivalence. Moscow’s government resolution stopped short of full ratification of the Paris accords, Reuters reported, leaving in question what, if any, would be the legal implications of not ratifying the agreement.

By the end of a United Nations climate summit in New York on Monday, Russia, as the world’s fourth largest emitter, remained one of 12 nations in the world that has not ratified the landmark 2015 agreement.

The government resolution insisted this wasn’t necessary because Moscow had already undertaken to honor its commitments under Paris in April 2016, when it formally signed the agreement.

But Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Gordeyev said it was important for Russia to be part of the Paris accord so that it had a voice when it came to deciding any new measures to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“We get the chance to fully participate in shaping the modern global climate agenda,” Gordeyev told Reuters. “And any regulatory measures that are drawn up will have to take into consideration our national interests as much as possible.”

While climate experts will view Russia’s commitment to Paris skeptically, pressure on the Kremlin to offer some formal acquiescence to the climate goals has been mounting.

Earlier this month, Russia’s own Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment issued a report warning that the country was warming twice as fast as anyplace else in the world. In an earlier report, the same ministry predicted that climate change would bring droughts, epidemics and mass hunger to Russia if left unaddressed.

Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development has meanwhile accelerated climate policymaking. A national adaptation plan is in the works, and bills introducing carbon taxes and other mechanisms to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions have been drafted. Earlier this year, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Russia’s main industrial lobby, dropped its opposition to the Paris agreement.

As governments everywhere raise environmental standards to promote green trade, the lobby concluded that it wouldn’t be long before Russian exports are taxed out of world markets unless Moscow follows suit.

Companies “understood that they lose more by remaining on the sidelines than by joining,” Mikhail Yulkin, head of the lobby’s climate and environment committee, said at the time.

That’s a far more alarmed reaction to climate change than the world has so far heard from Moscow.

Indeed, for most of his two decades in power, President Vladimir Putin has challenged the notion that global warming is due to human activity. At an Arctic forum just two years ago, Putin called climate change “a factor that bolsters optimism,” adding that it “provides more favorable conditions for economic activity in this region.” He once even quipped that climate change would allow Russians to save money on fur coats.

At the level of economic policy, the Kremlin has made long bets on Putin’s mild global warming forecasts. The rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice has opened the Northern Sea Route through once-impassible waters, and the Russian government has pledged some $11 billion over the next six years to develop it as a major shipping artery.

Once icebound shores are thawing, expanding access to minerals, gas deposits and fossil fuels, and Moscow is enlisting Asian partners ­– particularly China and South Korea – to haul them out under the escort of its growing nuclear icebreaker fleet. Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom has been tapped to oversee the development of this vast new infrastructure – and to collect tolls from those who use it. In a speech earlier this year, Putin said that one tenth of Moscow’s current investments are in the Arctic.

But for any of this to pay off, the rest of the country has to remain intact – and in the face of current warming trends, that’s far from certain.

The problems associated with Russia’s melting permafrost are daunting enough. More than two-thirds of Russia – an area bigger than continental Europe – are covered by permanently frozen ground.

At current rates, the Russian Academy of Sciences expects this region to shrink by 25 percent by 2080 – threatening $250 billion worth of apartment blocks, roads, railways, pipelines and other infrastructure.

What lies beneath the Arctic ice is posing problems of its own. Retreating glaciers on Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago between the Barents and Kara seas, are releasing fallout from dozens of nuclear tests that the Soviets conducted on and above the islands – including the 1961 Tsar Bomba, the most destructive device ever exploded.

The twin disasters of drought and flood could meanwhile continue to savage Russia’s farmland, the environmental ministry warned in its report. Unstable weather patterns are also on the rise. In 2000, Rosgidromet, Russia’s weather service recorded 141 “severe weather phenomena,” which it defines as intense weather conditions—from heat waves to heavy winds—that threaten human safety and can cause significant economic damage. Last year there were 580.

So what will Moscow’s tepid embrace of the Paris pact, and its goal of limiting world temperature rises to below 2 degrees Celsius, look like? Probably nothing revolutionary, as Russia’s own emissions reduction pledges makes clear.

That’s because Moscow has long insisted that any cuts it offers would be based on the emissions it released in 1990 – the year before the Soviet economy and its emissions-intensive heavy industry collapsed.

Compared to 1990, the Russia of today has already cut greenhouse gases by about 25 percent ­– a reduction no other major country comes close to matching.

Within the Paris framework, Russia is pledging to limit emissions to 70 percent to 75 percent of those decade’s old baseline levels by 2030. And it has until the end of 2020 to present its new long-term strategy for achieving that goal.

According to Climate Action Tracker, if every other country adopted the same emissions rules Russia is using, global warming would likely exceed 4 degrees Celsius by 2050. The climate group ranks Russia’s efforts to meet Paris objectives as “critically insufficient,” alongside just four other countries – the United State, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Ukraine.