Russia and climate politics: will a Dark Knight rise in Warsaw?

The Kremlin is notoriously vague over its commitment to the UN climate process, but there are signs this could change


By Olga Dobrovidova

As country representatives are packing their suitcases for yet another two-week session of heavily abbreviated climate talks in Warsaw, the question I get much too often is, “What will Russia do this time?”.

Not that it’s completely unwarranted – after all, our Bonn performance and Russia’s very creative take on 50 Ways to Warn Your Lover of Transparency Eroding at Climate Talks (see a recent letter by Mr Frolov and an IISD article by Oleg Shamanov himself) are hard to disregard.

That’s probably the reason why Climate Action Network Europe director Wendel Trio, when asked at a briefing whether we have moved on from all that blocking nastiness, said many people don’t really know.

“There have been many efforts made by both UNFCCC secretariat and incoming Polish COP presidency and others to really find out what exactly the plans are in the Russian government and what exactly they aim to achieve… It is still unclear, and we probably would have to wait until the first day of the conference”, Trio told reporters.

He noted, however, that there are indications that Russia’s not going to play that hard in Warsaw – and indeed, the somewhat cautious consensus in the Moscow expert community is that having made an undoubtedly strong point in June, the three countries will continue to pursue their procedural agenda in a less ‘sod-it-all’ manner.

Positive signals

So, how about, for a change, I give you a few more constructive things that are in our luggage for COP19?

For one thing, at the end of September we have successfully and somewhat unexpectedly completed a 15-month quest of firmly setting our own 2020 emissions goal. Granted, it’s still 25% below 1990, which is effectively an increase, but given that earlier this year many people completely gave up on this presidential decree ever being signed, it’s a start.

The new goal appears to only concern economy-wide reductions, so the biggest worry of the Russian huge forest sector rendering the goal even more irrelevant may have been taken off the table after all. The Ministry of Economic Development is tasked with preparing an implementation plan that is said to include more industry-specific goals. This plan has to be greenlit by the government in six months.

So far so good, but there’s more. Remember how we talked about drafting a blueprint for a national carbon market? That is also going strong, and the newest regulatory success reinvigorated discussions on this matter, with the joint working group established by MED and Delovaya Rossiya, the business lobby, meeting in mid-October.

This too comes with an asterisk: once everyone’s moved past discussing the very urgent need for a national market, you have to decide what that market might actually look like, and there’s the catch.

Case in point: Delovaya Rossia put together its suggestions for the ministry’s implementation plan and, among other things, oh so casually added “suppliers of fossil fuels” as companies potentially subject to carbon regulations.

At the meeting, this was met with an unusually straightforward remark by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment representative for climate issues, Denis Bryunin, who said, “We would ask MED to very carefully address the suggestion of adding [those companies], because the consequences of this decision are more likely to hit you than us”. But, certain issues notwithstanding, the (hypothetical) Russian carbon market is moving in a positive direction, and at a pace everyone seems to be happy with.

This little ‘ottepel’ in climate policy comes at a time when the most recent GHG data for 2011 shows an unprecedented bump in emissions, according to a report by Michael Yulkin and Dmitry Shchekoldin of CCGS, a Russian consultancy. The main driving force behind this increase is, incidentally, motor transportation, which saw its emissions rise some 55% above pre-crisis peak 2008 levels. Automobiles now come second in overall emissions right behind Russia’s enormous fuel and energy sector – beating industry and construction.

Rising awareness

Somewhat surprisingly, even the Russian public seems to endorse more climate regulation: a June poll commissioned by the Kremlin has 45% of those surveyed agreeing that Russia should play a leading role in the global fight against climate change and (gasp) “unilaterally take a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

Moreover, a staggering 53% supported economic measures to reduce emissions, i.e. essentially a price on carbon, although this has to be treated with great caution – with one in three choosing “not sure” and significant doubts over whether that many Russian people can explain what a price on carbon is.

(By the way, this in my view goes really nice with only 33% agreeing with the IPCC conclusion of human activity being the dominant driver of climate change and 42% dividing the blame equally between humans and nature – the rest presumably being skeptical of the problem itself. Elana Wilson Rowe, a Norwegian researcher whose book on Russian climate politics was published earlier this year, will be thrilled to see such a clear example of what she calls ‘causal agnosticism’ in action).

Overall, things at home seem to be on a roll, although arguably it’s a roll from a very low base. And Warsaw might just be less of a PR disaster (remember that time we tried to quietly weaken our already not exactly ambitious goal behind everyone’s back in Doha?). There is even a rare treat planned for COP19 – a Russian side event, albeit focused on a safer topic of terrestrial ecosystems such as steppe, peatlands and tundra.

And it is heartening that others also seem to notice this. Sir David King, Foreign Secretary William Hague’s new special representative for climate change, visited Moscow at the end of October. In an exclusive RIA Novosti interview, he said that during a series of meetings with senior negotiators and a deputy minister for energy, he had “extremely fruitful” discussions with regard to achieving the 2015 agreement.

“Moscow is my very first trip [in this capacity]. We see Russia as a very important ally… I think Russia is in a position to be a very good player in this process”, Sir King told RIA.

So, I guess unless Russian Federation stands up and promptly blocks something on the very first meeting on Monday, for the moment you might want to put aside those Fossils of the Day with our name on them and take a closer look at Russia. And maybe ask some follow-up questions at that side event.

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