Russian President Vladimir Putin, while delivering a truculent address to the UN General assembly yesterday –accusing the US of missteps in Syria and asserting Moscow’s national interests in Ukraine – sounded a briefly conciliatory note on climate change, at least to western ears.
After concluding an attack on sanctions levied against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and outlining a complicated plan proposing the interconnection of the Eurasian Economic Union, he took a breath, and conceded the following:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the issues that affect the future of all people include the challenge of global climate change,” he said, adding it was in everyone’s interest to make the Paris climate summit beginning on November 30 “a success.”
Toward that goal, he said that, “As part of our national contribution, we plan to reduce by 2030 the greenhouse emissions to 70, 75 percent of the 1990 level.”
The proposal was so shocking it was like hearing a record scratch. These were no small beans coming from the world’s fourth biggest emitter after China, the US and India. Even more incredible coming from a president who’s hitched the wagon of his economic success to the oil industry, which is responsible for 90 percent of Russia’s emissions.
Up to a 70 to 75 percent reduction makes the European Union’s proposal of a 40 percent reduction by 2030 under 1990 levels seem laughable. It further serves to make US proposals to slash emissions by 28 percent below 2005 levels seem positively anemic.
For all of Putin’s pugilism in other areas, was he making a radical departure from Russia’s usual stone silence on the issue of climate change and planning to rock Paris?
Putin actually seemed to be getting it…
Saying that setting quotas on harmful emissions “would only defuse the problem for awhile” he veered into positively tree-hugging territory by suggesting Russia’s emissions cuts should be achieved by a holistic recipe:
“We have to focus on introducing fundamental and new technologies inspired by nature, which would not damage the environment, but would be in harmony with it,” he said. “Also, that would allow us to restore the balance upset by biosphere and technosphere upset by human activities.”
Putin, ever the outdoorsman, came briefly into bare-breasted focus with the glimmer of a tear in his eye as he surveyed the littered landscape. He’d not been in such harmony with nature since he’d saved a television crew in 2008 by shooting an Siberian Tiger with a tranquilizer gun.
He pressed further, suggesting that Russia would cosponsor a special UN forum on issues of natural resource depletion, habitat destruction and climate change. It sounded weaker, but he was still on the climate bandwagon.
…until he lost it
And then the moment ended. He swerved into homilies about the potential of the UN and drew his speech to a close.
The Russian media went wild. State-controlled news agencies issued a flurry of nearly identical reports reiterating the Putin goal of slashing emissions to 70 to 75 percent, and hailing his championing of another big, vague forum to talk over this and that.
But still…that 75 percent promise was a “wow” with a capital W, and left many scratching their heads about how Russia would achieve this lofty goal and what, precisely harmonizing emissions reductions with nature actually meant.
Rewinding to the touted COP15 in 2009, now-Prime Minister, then seat-warming President Dmitry Medvedev brought with him to Copenhagen an offer to cut Russia’s emissions by 25 percent under 1990 levels.
This was an easy target requiring nearly no effort on Russia’s behalf, as its emissions in the wake of post-Soviet industrial collapse in 1990 were nearly nothing, and everyone knew it.
Leave it to the trees
Oleg Shamanov, one of Russia’s negotiators in Copenhagen, argued to Bellona that Russia wasn’t getting due credit for its enormous forest holdings that should be sucking up CO2 like a giant Hoover. He estimated in sideline talks with Bellona’s Russia group six years ago that these forests could further slash Russia’s emissions up to 70 percent.
Recalling that, Putin’s figures offered yesterday took on a sort of yellowing familiarity. A little fact-checking reveals that Russia finally formalized this notion of a “possible” reduction of up to 70 to 75 percent in 2015.
Russia’s climate action plan submitted to the United Nations in April offers both sets of figures that Shamanov was batting around in 2009: a 25 to 30 percent emissions reduction under 1990 levels, and a 70 to 75 percent reduction.
But the offer of up to 70 to 75 percent comes with a little qualifier stating the figure “might be a long-term indicator, subject to the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests.”
According to Angelina Davydova, a Russian climate journalist who contributes to Bellona’s Russian news site, UN officials don’t even know what that dreary language means, though they assume it has something to do with that CO2 Hoover effect of forests.
Now, the absorbing capacity of forests is not something to knock: Anyone who’s watched Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey can tell you forests worked in “harmony” with humanity to regulate CO2 in the atmosphere right up until the Industrial Revolution, when emissions surpassed what trees could handle.
So, Putin’s cooperation with nature to bear the weight of Russia’s climate commitments requires an even more extraordinarily advanced scientific breakthrough than Carbon Capture and Storage or beefed-up reliance on renewables – namely a time machine set to 1760.
With Russia’s actual – and queasily familiar – reductions goal set at 25 to 30 percent, it’s little wonder that climate experts are deriding Russia’s climate vision as lazy, inept and refried.
History of energy suitable for climate combat
To give Putin the benefit of the doubt and ascribe to him a truly profound vision – which is difficult – it’s worth having a look at recent developments in Russia’s energy sector for a clue as to what this “harmony” might mean.
Was Putin actually referring in his address to the UN to a more united and more strenuous effort to develop renewable energy, leaving oil, gas, and coal behind? Or, given that Putin did not elaborate on those new technologies in harmony with nature, might he have been talking about nuclear?
After all, at the end of last year, Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom claimed it had booked overseas reactor orders to the tune of more than $100 billion – for 27 new reactor orders, predominantly in developing countries – which would square with the goals of many UN nations that wish to keep coal out of the hands of poorer countries. These aggressive attempts by Rosatom to win foreign markets have invariably had Putin’s staunch support.
And Putin has given backing to nuclear technologies in the same measure that he has been disparaging of renewables, saying nuclear was the only alternative to oil and gas and that “all other ideas are just for fun now.”
But nuclear power is certainly no panacea for emissions reductions, and even if it were, building plants would take so long and so many would be required that the expiration date on doing anything to mitigate climate change would have long passed.
As for renewable growth in Russia, that field has been fallow since 2014, with the Russian government seemingly insisting on failing.
In 2008, Russia had hoped to grow its renewable sector from 0.9 percent of the energy mix to 1.5 percent by 2010, 2.5 percent by 2015, and 4.5 percent by 2020. But even by 2014, the whole of renewable energy on Russia’s grid hadn’t reached even 1 percent. As a result the Kremlin drastically deflated renewable expectations by 2020 to 2.5 percent.
Given this sparse catalogue of climate friendly efforts that Russia has grudgingly churned out, one wonders why Putin even bothered to mention climate change at all. It’s clear, however that his suggestion of an emissions reduction of up to 70 to 75 is more smoke that has to be sucked up by the trees.