Barack Obama, the former US president, targeted Russia at the Glasgow COP26 Climate Talks this week. According to Obama, the fact Russian President Vladimir Putin (as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping) declined to attend the conference reflects “a dangerous absence of urgency, a willingness to maintain the status quo” on climate action.
As the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and one of the world’s top coal, oil, and gas producers and exportersRussia is a major player in international climate action. It is vital to decarbonize carbon-intensive countries like Russia in order to reach global emission targets.
Russia, like Australia, is considered a climate laggard and must overcome significant resistance to real climate policy reforms at home.
Despite having vastly different political systems, there are interesting parallels in Australia and Russia on climate issues.
Russia’s international participation on climate
Putin announced surprisely that Russia will be aiming to become a COP26 member, two weeks after COP26. achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. But his decision not to attend COP26 dealt a blow to the summit’s prospects of success.
Russia has been an unwilling participant in international climate change negotiations for many years. It refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol until 2004, then failed to sign up for Kyoto’s second commitment period. Russia similarly signed the Paris Agreement, but it did not take a final decision on ratification before late 2019.
That’s despite a long tradition of Russian climate science researchDating back to the Soviet era.
Given the weakness of the Paris Agreement, ratifying it was a simple political win. Russia’s commitments under the agreementThey are.
Russia’s updated NDCIn November 2020, the nationally determined contribution was submitted. It is the action that it will take to fulfill its climate commitments. It sets a target to reduce emissions by 70% compared to 1990 levels by 2030.
The target sounds ambitious but the nation’s economic decline in the 1990s, and subsequent fall in greenhouse gas emissions, means it’s easily achievable. This target also leverages the capacity of Russia’s forests to absorb CO₂, though many scientists disputeThe extent of this.
So what explains Russia’s limited commitments to date? Here are some clues from domestic politics around climate change.
Climate politics in domestic countries and the obstacles to reform
Russia’s domestic politics are fiercely contested. Key people and groups compete for influence on the subject of climate change. These debates take place mainly at the elite level with little space for civil society actors.
Strong economic interests have resisted attempts to strengthen domestic policy on climate change in the past.
The biggest obstacle to reform is still the coal industry. Russia is being criticized at a time in which many countries are pledging to phase out coal. actively seeking to expand its industry. The coal industry has strong links with key government ministries, such as the powerful ministry of energy. The industry has successfully lobbied state support and subsidies.
Russia’s coal politics are complicated by its dependence on coal for heating and employment in certain regions like the Kuzbass in Siberia. Local elites and the local population would oppose any attempt to shut down the industry.
Oil and gas companies are making great strides in their pursuit of their goals. plans to expand into the ArcticA warmer climate makes the region more accessible. Revenues from oil and gas exports make up a significant portion of Russia’s budget, so its highly unlikely Russia will give this up anytime soon.
Putin’s own position on climate has been ambiguous. He and other elite members often criticized the climate. portray Russia as a global climate leader and “ecological donor” due to its vast forest resources.
However, Russia’s limited policy commitments to date make such statements little more than symbolic.
Recent political shifts
More recently however, we’ve seen some important developments which suggest a shift may be occurring.
There is a growing pro-climate lobby around the ministry of economic development and other government actors. They adopt a pragmatic approach to climate change and recognize the economic costs to Russia of not doing anything.
International pressures are increasing as well.
The EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (which puts a carbon price on certain imports) has many in the Russian government concerned, given the significant impact anticipated for key Russian exports. Some in government also question the viability of coal considering global decarbonisation trends.
Two of Russia’s major state owned corporations, Rosatom Gazprom, are at the forefront of an attempt to reposition Russia as a renewable energy superpower, centred on the expanding hydrogen and nuclear industries. Both of these industries offer Russia significant potential for export revenues.
Support for a more active stance on climate has also come from some of Russia’s largest private companies. These groups include EN+ RusalThey have committed to net-zero by 2020 and are eager to show their climate credentials to sensitive international markets.
This newfound momentum has resulted in a number important policy developmentsThis culminated in the announcement of net-zero by 2060. So while the obstacles remain huge, there has been a discernible shift in Russia’s approach to climate change.
What can Australia learn?
Both Australia, Russia and China are both considered climate laggards. They are also subject to increased international criticism for their lackluster policy ambition.
Both have elements of strong resistance at the national level to climate action, especially in coal. Both have corporate players that work to reduce emissions, despite inaction by the government.
Although net zero targets have been the focus of much attention, there has not been any detail from either country on how they will be achieved. And neither Russia nor Australia’s net zero commitments say anything about exported emissions.
Ambitious declarations mean nothing if they’re not backed by serious policy reform. Both nations must work hard to close the gap between vague, high-level promises and concrete, implementable policy.