Russia faces climate change reckoning as Putin stays away from Cop26

Energy giant hopes vast forests will offset carbon costs and ease green transition

Roza Khutor, a ski village built for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Caucasus mountains: Ecologists say thousands of hectares of forest were destroyed during its construction. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Roza Khutor, a ski village built for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Caucasus mountains: Ecologists say thousands of hectares of forest were destroyed during its construction. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin is not attending the UN climate talks in Glasgow, and declined to commit the world’s fourth-biggest polluter to pacts agreed there to cut the use of coal and emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Russia has instead put much of its focus at Cop26 on the need to save trees, and joined more than 100 other states in pledging to stop deforestation by 2030.

The promise may surprise ecologists who say thousands of hectares of forest and other important wildlife habitat were destroyed by massive building work ordered by Putin before the 2014 Winter Olympics, which Russia hosted in Sochi on the Black Sea and 65km away in the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana.

Then, ancient woodland in the Caucasus mountains was felled to make way for Putin’s pet project. Now, he hopes to use Russia’s forests – the biggest in the world, containing about a fifth of all trees – to help its energy firms make the painful transition to a greener future.

A view from a cable car of Roza Khutor, a ski village built for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Caucasus mountains in southern Russia. Ecologists say thousands of hectares forest and other wildlife habitat were destroyed by construction work for the Games. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
A view from a cable car of Roza Khutor, a ski village built for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Caucasus mountains in southern Russia. Ecologists say thousands of hectares forest and other wildlife habitat were destroyed by construction work for the Games. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the vast hydrocarbon reserves that underpinned its economy are still Russia’s mainstay, and oil and gas sales account for more than half of export revenue and a third of the national budget.

During his 21-year rule, Putin has repeatedly vowed to diversify Russia’s economy, but the latest rankings by the respected RBK newspaper show that the nation’s three biggest firms are oil and gas producers, and that nine of its 15 largest corporations work in hydrocarbons and power generation; the equivalent US list, published by Forbes, includes only one energy company in the top 15.

“Beginning in the 2030s, the external effects on Russia will be severe,” Thane Gustafson says of the impact of efforts to halt global warming in his new book Klimat, Russia in the Age of Climate Change.

Thane Gustafson: The Georgetown university professor estimates the global shift away from oil, coal and gas could cause Russia’s total export income to fall by about 30 per cent by 2050. Photograph: Courtesy of Harvard University Press
Thane Gustafson: The Georgetown university professor estimates the global shift away from oil, coal and gas could cause Russia’s total export income to fall by about 30 per cent by 2050. Photograph: Courtesy of Harvard University Press

“Climate politics, technological change and energy transition outside Russia will cause a sharp drop in Russia’s income from the export of fossil fuels – mainly oil – which are the lifeblood of the economy,” the Georgetown University professor explains.

“The resulting massive loss of wealth will affect Russian citizens at all levels but will especially impact the state... This in turn will have major consequences for Russia’s position in the global economy, and its standing as a great power.”

Gustafson thinks climate change could help boost Russia’s already booming agricultural sector, increase cargo shipping along its Arctic coast, and raise international demand for its nuclear power technology and liquefied natural gas.

But he estimates that the global shift away from oil, coal and eventually gas could cause Russia’s total export income to fall by about 30 per cent by 2050.

“The core question is, if peak oil demand comes to pass and peak gas demand comes to pass in Europe, then what else have the Russians got?” Gustafson told The Irish Times.

“The big story is that all the alternatives, when you compare them to today’s export revenues from oil and gas, just don’t add up.”

Wildfires and floods

Putin (69) was dismissive of climate change for years, but now addresses the issue often and said last month that Russia wanted to be carbon neutral by 2060.

Moscow has been alarmed by major wildfires and floods and by some thawing of the permafrost that covers 65 per cent of Russia, where scientists say national temperatures are rising 2.5 times faster than the global average.

The EU’s announcement in July of plans to introduce a special carbon tax on imports from 2026 also focused the minds of Russian officials.

A helipad and other infrastructure built for the 2014 Winter Olympics at Krasnaya Polyana, in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia. Ecologists say thousands of hectares forest and other wildlife habitat were destroyed by construction work for the Games. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
A helipad and other infrastructure built for the 2014 Winter Olympics at Krasnaya Polyana, in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia. Ecologists say thousands of hectares forest and other wildlife habitat were destroyed by construction work for the Games. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Igor Sechin, the head of Kremlin-controlled Rosneft, Russia’s biggest oil firm, has reportedly warned the Kremlin that the tariff could cost the country far more than western sanctions imposed over its undeclared war against Ukraine.

The tax will be levied initially on carbon-intensive products such as steel, aluminium and fertiliser, but Russia fears it could be expanded to cover oil and gas imports as the EU accelerates its move away from fossil fuels.

Moscow frames the EU tax as an attack on Russian industry, and Putin has urged countries “to put aside political and other differences and not turn the transition to carbon neutrality into an instrument of unfair competition”.

Weapon against Russia

Russian media are giving considerable coverage to climate issues now that they are on the Kremlin agenda, yet much reporting on Cop26 echoes the claim that the West is using the shift to greener energy as a weapon against Russia.

The popular Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper told readers during Cop26 that Washington saw the climate crisis as a way to “control the development of sovereign states”.

“With this approach, countries for which sovereignty has not yet become an empty phrase will be blamed for any failures of the climate agenda,” the newspaper wrote. “This is probably why the heads of Russia, China, Brazil, Turkey and some other developed countries are not at the Glasgow summit.”

The 2014 Winter Olympics village at Krasnaya Polyana, in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia. Ecologists say thousands of hectares forest and other wildlife habitat were destroyed by construction work for the Games. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
The 2014 Winter Olympics village at Krasnaya Polyana, in the Caucasus mountains of southern Russia. Ecologists say thousands of hectares forest and other wildlife habitat were destroyed by construction work for the Games. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Putin’s climate envoy, Ruslan Edelgeriyev, said Russia’s success in reducing its emissions depended largely on “market conditions and the actions of our partners – if there are no double standards [or] elements of containment and protectionism”.

He made clear what the Kremlin wants from the West at Cop26: for nuclear power – the source of 20 per cent of Russian electricity – to be recognised as clean energy; acceptance of Russia’s estimate of how much carbon its vast forests can swallow; and willingness to recognise a future Russian carbon trading system that would allow its polluters to offset emissions by planting and protecting trees.

In a recorded speech to the summit, Putin said Russia’s bid to reach net-zero emissions by 2060 relied in part “on the unique natural resource of its forest ecosystems and their significant capacity to absorb carbon dioxide”.

“We are taking the strongest and most vigorous measures to conserve them, improving forest management, fighting illegal logging and forest fires, increasing the area of reforestation and steadily increasing funding for these purposes,” he said.

Putin has said Russia’s forests can absorb “billions of tonnes” of greenhouse gasses and his deputy prime minister, Viktoria Abramchenko, has put the figure at 2.5 billion tonnes annually – enough to make Russia carbon neutral at a stroke.

Carbon tariffs

Russian officials and business chiefs are also discussing the creation of national system of carbon tariffs, which they hope would allow firms to pay a pollution tax to Moscow instead of to Brussels and exempt them from EU levies.

Sceptics say agreement on how Russia is managing and monitoring its forests and whether its biggest firms are really paying their taxes requires a level of trust that is glaringly absent from relations between Moscow and the West.

They also criticise the Kremlin’s focus on how much pollution Russia’s forests can absorb, rather than on cutting emissions or reliance on fossil fuels, but see it as no surprise in an economy built around energy giants run by men like Sechin and Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller, who have worked with Putin since the 1990s.

“Taken as a whole, the history of the Putin era can be summed up as one of the dominant political power of the hydrocarbon lobby, backed by Putin’s closest allies and underpinned by the security establishment,” Gustafson writes in Klimat.

“Putin’s policy has deepened Russia’s dependence on natural resource exports, and the longer it continues, the more vulnerable Russia will become, as the effects of climate change, both external and internal, gather strength. Elite conversation in Russia today is just beginning to recognise this problem.”

Speaking from the US, Gustafson said there was now “a swirl of voices, a swirl of interests” in Moscow around climate change.

“They are fully up to speed on the issues, threats and narratives and the conversations going on in the West. How do they react? That depends who they are.”

Anit-Moscow conspiracy

Powerful hard-liners such as Russian security council chief Nikolai Patrushev tend to regard the topic as an anti-Moscow conspiracy, while liberal reformers hope it provides impetus for the economic overhaul they have sought for many years.

Gazprom seeks a long energy transition via the “bridge” fuel of gas, and talks about filling pipelines with hydrogen when that cleaner future finally comes.

Sechin argues that oil demand will hold up for longer than many predict, and that Russia and Rosneft can make huge profits by continuing to invest in the oil sector as western majors switch their focus and funding to alternative energy.

It is a risky and expensive bet: Rosneft is pushing on with its immense €120 billion Vostok project in the Arctic even as some researchers warn that if big economies hit their carbon-emission targets, more than €1 trillion in Russian energy assets such as drilling rigs and pipelines could be worthless by 2036.

That is also when Putin, in power since 2000, will no longer be eligible for the presidency, according to constitutional amendments that he signed this year.

In the name of “stability”, Putin and his allies have devoted much of their energy to holding back reforms. In the next two decades, a generation of postponed changes – political, economic and environmental – may crash over Russia in a single wave.

Inside Russia

A series of in-depth reports from this vast and poorly understood country READ MORE
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