Where Russia’s new emissions strategy goes wrong – and right

The Kremlin.

Publish date: September 23, 2021

According to a draft of a government economic plan, Russia will let its carbon emissions continue to rise through midcentury in the hopes that its vast reserves of forests and swamplands will absorb them – a path bound to provoke debate at the COP 26 UN climate talks in Glasgow six weeks from now.

According to a draft of a government economic plan, Russia will let its carbon emissions continue to rise through midcentury in the hopes that its vast reserves of forests and swamplands will absorb them – a path bound to provoke debate at the COP 26 UN climate talks in Glasgow six weeks from now.

While Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitter, is one of many nations that have failed to  submitted ambitious plans to cut emissions before that summit ­­–– as required under the Paris climate accord –– the new draft cited by Russian media offers a clearer picture of what Moscow might bring to the climate negotiations: nearly complete reliance on its natural carbon sinks to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, with little effort devoted to preventing emissions in the first place.

At the crucial Glasgow summit, nations will gather to determine whether the world is on track to cut its emissions enough to honor the Paris agreement’s goal of arresting global temperature rises at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The prospects aren’t bright. On Friday, the UN warned that based on the most recent action plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions submitted by countries ahead of the summit, the planet is on track to warm by more than 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century – far above what experts have said is acceptable.

Still, major economies like the United States, the European Union and New Zealand have pledged to cut their emissions in half by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Russia’s current plans as outlined by the draft forecast that its emissions will continue to spiral upward until 2050, with as much as 57 percent of the country’s energy continuing to come from fossil fuels by that time.

According to the numbers in the draft plan, written by Russia’s Economic Development Ministry, Russia emitted a total of 2.12 billion tons of CO2 in 2019 compared to 3.8 billion tons by the European Union. Its emissions are projected to rise 8.2% to 2.29 billion tons by 2050, The Moscow Times said, citing reports on the draft from the Kommersant daily newspaper.

Russia’s four climate options

The Ministry’s low-carbon development strategy describes four possible emissions reduction plans for the next 30 years: inertial, base, intensive and aggressive. All of them except “inertial” would make President Vladimir Putin’s goal of getting Russia’s annual carbon emissions below the EU’s by 2050 achievable, officials predict.

Russian birch forest A Russian birch forest. Credit: Y Nakanishi / Flickr

Russian officials consider the “base” plan the most attractive, the RBC news website reported, even though it doesn’t call for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, introducing a carbon trading system or phasing out fossil fuels and pursuing renewables.

Under this plan, Russia will increase emissions in every industry except transport and utilities.  But the country’s overall annual emissions would still fall thanks to “natural carbon capture” by its vast forests and wetlands.

Russia currently estimates that its forests absorb around 500 million tons of CO2 per year, a figure the “base” strategy would seek to double by planting trees, reducing wildfires and restoring wetlands.

Russia’s claims to its forests aren’t necessarily wrong. Carbon gobblers like forests and other land-based ecosystems are indeed powerful tools for muting the effects of human caused greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019 alone, they were responsible for absorbing 21.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Without them, climate change would be far worse.

Carbon removal vs carbon reduction

But scientists who are responsible for calculating globe’s emissions have cautioned that Russia and other nations that rely heavily on their natural carbon sinks for their emissions reductions are giving them a skewed picture of how much carbon dioxide is actually in the atmosphere.

According to a recent study in Nature Climate Change, there’s a huge gap between greenhouse gas emissions acknowledged each year by the world’s nations and the emissions calculated by the independent models used to verify those claims.

The gap between the two turns out to be 5.5 gigatons of CO2 – roughly the equivalent of what the United States, the world’s second biggest emitter, releases each year.

If countries are using one accounting method but independent models are using another, the results will make it difficult to determine where the world actually stands in its emissions-cutting goals.

It is not that those gigatons of emissions are being missed entirely. Rather, the issue is how they are being categorized, who gets the credit and whether that is moving the goal posts for how aggressively individual nations need to cut their fossil fuel emissions.

Everybody’s doing it

Under the Paris accord, nations report detailed information on their emissions to the United Nations – including those that are subtracted from the atmosphere by forests and other land use. But between 2005 and 2015, the Nature study found that some countries have claimed they are removing so much additional carbon from the air that it obscures whether they are actually meeting individual commitments to cut carbon emissions at their source.

Siberian-taiga-forest Siberian Taiga. Credit: Elkwiki

Russia is only one among several countries – which include Brazil, Canada, the United States and many others – that are benefiting, at least on paper, from the enormous carbon “sink” provided by their forests. The result is that after these countries add up the emissions from the power they generate – the cars on their roads, the coal fired plants they operate, and other sources – they are then allowed to then subtract a substantial amount based on the carbon-sponging role of their land.

Russia, for instance, reported 1.99 billon tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural activity, and other sources in 2018, according to Climate Watch. But then it subtracted 551 million tons of those emissions to account the role of its forests and other land management efforts geared toward removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Ultimately, the “net” emissions Russia reports to the international community that year totaled 1.44 billion tons – or almost a third less than actually left the country’s tailpipes and smokestacks.

The US uses a similar equation. In 2019, it subtracted 789 million tons of CO2 emissions from a total of 6.6 billion – thus grabbing a 12 % savings on the greenhouse gas releases it reported to the UN, thanks to forests and other land-based ecosystems alone.

What’s ‘managed land’? Good question

What the countries like Russia are doing is a product of UN rules regarding “managed land,” defined as areas “where human interventions and practices have been applied to perform production, ecological or social function.” This definition could involve areas of intensive forestry, but it may also involve national parks or even places where a country is prepared to deploy to fight wildfires.

This “managed land” reporting system exists because of a complex scientific problem. Countries are supposed to report human-caused impacts on forests and other vegetation within their borders to the UN, but that is a difficult figure to accurately calculate. It is easy to capture the direct human impact of logging or planting a tree. But it is more difficult to measure indirect impacts, such as the role of the additional carbon dioxide humans add to the atmosphere in stoking additional tree growth. These indirect effects are hard to separate from what would naturally happen anyway, as forests grow, and burn, on their own.

Therefore, countries are supposed to identify land that is “managed” and then count everything that is happening there. In practice, different countries have adopted different systems for doing that. In the case of the United States, for instance, almost the entire country is categorized as “managed,” with the main exception being remote regions of Alaska. Russia counts all of its grasslands and most of is forests as managed, but  considers its wetland unmanged.

Yet, as recent research shows, many countries are not providing any detailed information about how they determine which lands within their borders are “managed” and which are not.

As a result, the study in Nature estimates that under this confusing system, countries are considering far more land to be managed than other independent methods do.

Where over-reliance on forests can lead

As the Nature report makes clear, no individual nation is at fault for that 5.5 billion ton discrepancy — rather the issue is two incompatible scientific approaches, with the countries’ individual experts using one technique and independent energy system modelers and carbon bookkeepers using another.

What’s more, a nation can wind up crediting itself with carbon subtractions that it has not directly caused through policy actions such as stopping deforestation, replanting trees, or actively restoring degraded forest.

And this points to the central problem with the plan Russia wants to follow, at least as it is explained in the Economic Development Ministry’s draft: As the world’s nations work to slash emissions to stave off more warming, countries with large forests could well chose not to reduce their carbon releases to zero under the current system. Instead, by taking credit for the subtractions of carbon occurring in their forests, they will only have to reduce emissions to the point where and other landscapes are offsetting them.

It’s easy to see where overreliance on national carbon sinks could lead. Simply put, current greenhouse gas inventory reporting isn’t designed to measure and monitor true mitigation efforts – things like taking internal combustion engine vehicles off the road in favor of electric cars, or shuttering coal-fired power plants and replacing them with wind and solar.

Clearly some sort of distinction should be drawn between reductions brought about by shifts in economic activity and removal thanks to trees and other terrestrial carbon sinks.

Bellona’s work in drawing the line

It’s over precisely such potential mismatches that Bellona and other NGOs have long lobbied European Union leadership to separate the accounting of carbon removal and carbon emissions. Owing to this campaigning, the bloc’s new climate law, committing the EU to a net emissions reduction of 55 %by 2030, includes a cap on how much natural carbon removal can be included to make up that figure.

That cap stands at 225 million tons, meaning that 52.8 % of the bloc’s proposed emissions cuts will be due to actually preventing carbon releases into the atmosphere, with the remainder accounted for by forests and other natural land-based carbon swabs.

The law thus establishes that the overwhelming majority of the EU’s mitigation efforts will need to be done by reducing emissions, with carbon removal helping to go the extra mile.

The new EU climate law is not the end of the conversation, but it marks a healthy start to one that is bound to be difficult and complicated.

And it will clearly impact  Glasgow’s COP26 talks, where world leaders will hope to close the over-running negotiations on how the Paris Agreement should work in practice. Of the many points to be discussed, carbon removal is very likely to be at the core, offering both an opportunity to delay or an opportunity to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The EU approach of setting a cap for the contribution of land sinks could ensure we aim for the latter.