What’s stopping Russia taking a lead at the UN climate change talks?

By Ed King

In the dying moments of the COP17 climate talks, as the clock ticked towards 6am, a Russian negotiator raised his hand and was given the floor.

He complained he had little understanding of what had been agreed, was unhappy with the manner of the negotiations and felt aggrieved that what we now know as the Durban Platform was about to be gavelled through by South Africa’s Foreign Minister Mashabane.

Russia, he said, had been excluded from the ‘huddle’ that had taken place in the middle of the plenary. He went on explain this was not the way UN talks should be conducted. But he was tired, and had a plane to catch, so finally he indicated he would raise no further objections.

Delighted as those on the podium and in the rest of the room were at having no further obstructions laid in their path, it was an intervention indicative perhaps of Russia’s perceived lack of interest in international climate talks.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council Russia usually throws its weight around in the multilateral arena, but appears to turn mute at the annual UNFCCC COP.

Hidden emissions

A new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explores the peripheral role the world’s fourth largest carbon emitter takes at these talks, and attempts to unravel the reasons behind it.

Moscow has often cited Russia’s comparatively slow emissions growth since 1990 as proof that the country is serious about tackling climate change. In 2010 Russia’s emissions stood at 34.2% below their 1990 levels.

But as many seasoned observers point out, this is largely down to the collapse in the Russian economy post USSR, and while the country has recovered, it has enjoyed a smaller spurt of economic growth than other ‘developing’ countries.

The Carnegie report paints an even murkier picture beneath the veneer of total CO2 emissions. It says the Russian economy remains the most energy intensive in the G20, per capita emissions are nearly 12 times the world average, carbon intensity was 81% above the global average in 2010.

Business as usual

On the face of it Russian politicians have little to gain from pursuing an emissions reduction programme, especially if they perceive strategic rivals like China and USA as not taking similar steps. You cannot imagine Putin declaring he would run ‘the greenest government ever’, as Prime Minister David Cameron did on winning the 2010 UK elections.

He is happy to accommodate big business, and has questioned whether mankind is to blame for climate change – suggesting it could be the ‘earth breathing’.

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine in February 2012 Putin explained his objective was to “strengthen not weaken our national economy and create an army and military industry that will secure Russia’s sovereignty”.

Some analysts break Russia’s priorities into three clear sections. Maintaining its nuclear arsenal, developing oil and gas supplies and playing hard and fast on the Security Council. For Dr Igor Sutyagin at the Royal United Services Institute: “An erosion of any of these stances would limit Russia’s ability to influence, coerce and cajole.”

Of greater concern for environmental activists, Putin sees the Arctic as Russia’s backyard. He is keen to exploit the vast mineral and oil reserves as the ice continues to retreat – US interest in the region makes this an ever-more pressing concern for Russia.

Vladmir Putin: Priority is to "strengthen, not weaken, our national economy"

A quick flick through the IEA’s 2011 Energy Statistics reveal that it tops the table in gas production and net exports, is the third largest coal net exporter and pushes Saudi Arabia into second place when it comes to selling oil products.

Government support for the energy industry is extensive. A 2008 UN report revealed that Russia was the most generous country in the world when it comes to fossil fuel subsidies, spending $40 Billion annually to support those industries.

And while the discoveries of shale gas in the USA have hit Russian suppliers hard – they still have $13 Trillion of gas deposits to fall back on, and a European market that has few other sources of easy gas, unless it too decides to unleash widespread fracking on the continent.

Global pressure

Those statistics suggest Vladmir Putin – despite his fondness for cuddling Tigers – is unlikely to become a green. But they do mean that Russia will need to play an increasingly important role in the talks if global emissions are to start decreasing at the rate necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

The country’s boreal forests store huge amounts of carbon, while the permafrost could store as much as half the Northern Hemisphere’s terrestrial carbon. Some scientists fear increased Russian deforestation and the melting of the permafrost could trigger unstoppable climate change.

And despite entrenched economic interests, the Carnegie report authors argue that Russia could be susceptible to concerted international pressure, together with its aspiration to be a ‘leading and contributing player on key international issues’.

The last year has been tough for Russia on the global stage. The Arab Spring robbed it of much of its influence in the Middle East, with Syria now teetering on the brink. Meanwhile demand for gas from a struggling Europe has plummeted, while protests against Putin’s coronation as President have soared.

Many Russia analysts agree it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia urgently needs to modernise and decarbonise its economy if it is to remain competitive. In 2011 two OECD reports came to similar conclusions – the state budget is too reliant on oil revenues, energy is needlessly wasted and innovation is ‘sluggish’.

Although May’s GDP figures were encouraging, the IMF warned last week that Russia’s reliance on oil and gas revenues puts it at ‘considerable risk’ of catching the global economic contagion. The message is clear – invest in technology and efficiency measures or risk another slow decline.

EU leverage

So what chance a change of heart from Russia at the UN climate talks? Its firm refusal to accept the EU-ETS aviation carbon trading scheme or an extension to the Kyoto Protocol indicates the green revolution is not top of the list.

It adopted the Protocol in 2004 (it had little effect on its emissions given the generous carbon allowances Russia was awarded) on the proviso the EU backed its claim to join the World Trade Organisation, which it finally achieved last month.

COP17 in Durban appeared to herald a new dawn, when the country put forward the ‘Russian proposal’, aimed at establishing mitigation targets for developing countries. But the ideas within it were not new, and developing countries have become wise to Russia’s position, described as ‘rhetoric rather than action’, but it was a start.

Past experience and Russia’s current economic model suggests it will need a major incentive or huge pressure to get Putin’s negotiating team to make any real concessions.

A united European Union may have some leverage over the Russian position, argues Harald Heubaum, Lecturer in Global Energy and Climate Policy at the University of London.

“Energy resources dominate Russian exports and most of the gas, oil and, to a lesser extent, coal produced in Russia is sent to European markets. Given infrastructure constraints and persistent investment risks, it is unlikely that East Asia will replace the European Union as Russia’s main export destination anytime soon despite some recent deals with China,” he says.

“In the past, European disunity has strengthened Russia’s negotiating position but the EU-Russian energy relationship is not a one-way street. A truly common energy policy can help the EU achieve its goals not just with regard to energy imports but also with regard to climate change mitigation and a post-Kyoto agreement.”

Qatar COP18

Of more concern perhaps, there is always the chance Russia might decline to send anyone to Qatar in November.

Russia’s Ambassador to Iraq Vladimir Titorenko accused Qatari customs of attacking him in December 2011 while he was passing through Doha airport after a visit to Jordan.

Titorenko alleged Qatari officials violated his rights as an Ambassador by searching his ‘diplomatic pouches’ (one suggested motivation was Russia’s opposition the ‘Arab Spring’ – which Qatar has tacitly supported).

This led Russia to downgrade diplomatic relations with Qatar – and in an official letter at COP17 it called on the UNFCCC to move COP18 to South Korea in light of what was termed an ‘egrerious violation of international law’.

Nine months on and Russia and Qatar again find themselves on opposing sides in the current Syrian crisis – which could easily roll on into November – suggesting that Doha may not be the ideal venue for a rapprochement. Those relations have not been upgraded, according to Russia’s Embassy in Doha.

What is clear is that with just over two years to go until the much anticipated global climate deal, it’s vital the world engages with Russia and encourages its leaders to be inside the huddle, rather than watching suspiciously from afar.

UPDATE 19/08/2012: Reuters Point Carbon reports that: ‘Russia will likely swap its conditional greenhouse gas limitation pledge for a firm 2020 emission cap, according to a draft government decree that could pave the way to a regional cap-and-trade scheme comparable in size to the EU carbon market.’

Read more on: Arctic | Climate Politics | UN climate talks | |