Despite Putin promises, Russia’s emissions keep rising

Russia’s climate targets are unambitious and Putin’s 24 years in power have seen no move away from fossil fuels, with upcoming elections set to bring little change

Russia's emissions keep rising despite Putin promises

Russian president Vladimir Putin on a weekend visit to the Siberian republic of Tyva in 2018 (Photo: Kremlin)


Citizens of the world’s fourth-largest emitting country are heading to the polls from March 15-17 in an election that is certain to guarantee Russian President Vladimir Putin another six years in office – and unlikely to help curb his country’s carbon pollution. 

Early in his rule, Putin joked that 2-3C of warming might be good for Russia as its people would “spend less on fur coats”.

But more recently he has warned against rising temperatures, in 2015 calling planetary heating an “issue that shall affect the future of the entire humankind”.

He has set targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and get Russia to net zero – balancing any carbon emissions it puts out with CO2 absorption through forests or other solutions – by 2060.

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But despite these pledges, Russia’s emissions have kept on rising, and its gas-heavy electricity mix has barely changed in Putin’s 24 years in power.

Mikhail Korostikov, a Russian analyst at Climate Bonds Initiative, an organisation that promotes low-carbon investment, told Climate Home that Putin “clearly does not [care about climate change]. It’s absent from his worldview. It’s not part of his agenda.” 

Misleading baseline

Shortly before the world adopted the Paris Agreement to tackle global warming in 2015, Putin announced that Russia would cut emissions by 25-30% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Under the Paris pact, countries are supposed to increase the ambition of their climate plans every five years. So in 2020, Putin raised the goal to a reduction of at least 30%. The next year, he said Russia would reach net zero by 2060.

But the 2030 target is less ambitious than it seems. Like most Soviet countries, Russia’s emissions plummeted in the early 1990s as the  Soviet Union broke up and the economy tanked.

By the late 1990s, when Putin came to power, emissions were already 25% below their 1990 levels.

Emissions then grew slowly during Putin’s time in power, so when he made his 2015 speech, he was only promising either a 1% cut in the 15 years to 2030 or allowing for emissions to actually grow if the effects of forests sucking up carbon are included.

Climate Action Tracker (CAT), a independent scientific project that monitors governments’ climate targets and policies, called Russia’s 2030 goal “highly insufficient” as “it can easily be met with current policies”.

Russia’s emissions continued to rise until the Covid-19 pandemic, which temporarily halted growth there and in other parts of the world.

According to CAT’s analysis, Russia’s economy-wide emissions are expected to continue increasing again to 2030, “when they should be rapidly declining, especially for such a large emitter”.

It also notes that Russia’s Energy Strategy to 2035, adopted in 2021, focuses almost exclusively on promoting fossil fuel extraction, consumption and exports to the rest of the world.

Like most countries, the bulk of Russia’s emissions are from burning fossil fuels for electricity. In Putin’s time in power, Russia’s energy mix has remained largely unchanged, as has its level of emissions. 

Most electricity is generated from Russian gas with smaller amounts from the dirtiest fossil fuel  – coal – and carbon-free sources including nuclear and hydropower.

Russia’s electricity mix has barely changed in 20 years (Photos: IEA/Screenshot)

Yet while power-related emissions have stayed the same, there have been steady rises in other sectors – from transport, industry and homes.

Fossil fuel defender

United Nations carbon accounting rules mean that emissions from burning Russian-produced fossil fuels outside of Russia are not included in its official accounts.

But they do contribute to climate change. Russia is the world’s second-biggest oil and gas producer, after only the United States. Its production of both fossil fuels has risen over the last ten years.

In international climate talks, it has pushed to defend oil and gas. At Cop28, its negotiators fought successfully for what campaigners called a “dangerous loophole” that recognised gas as a “transitional fuel” which “can be used for [emission-cutting] purposes”.

And as the World Bank has sought to go greener, Russia has mounted a rearguard action, teaming up with Saudi Arabia to urge the multilateral financial institution to keep on funding fossil fuels.

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Russia is also key to fighting climate change as guardian of a fifth of the world’s forests – home to a bigger share than any other nation.

Here, Global Forest Watch data suggests it has been relatively successful. Whereas farms have spread into forests in countries like Brazil, this has not happened in Russia – although this is likely down to an unsuitable climate rather than policy.

The major threat to Russia’s forests is climate change itself, which is driving hotter summer temperatures, drying the country out and sparking wildfires in its sparsely-populated east and north.

Geopolitical priorities

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, climate change has become even less of a priority for the Russian government, and the issue has been absent from the election campaign.

Western governments portray Putin – the longest-serving Kremlin chief since Josef Stalin – as a war criminal and a dictator. But opinion polls in Russia give him approval ratings of 85%, higher than before the invasion of Ukraine.

With military spending soaring and an international boycott of Russia’s fossil fuels over the Ukraine war hitting government revenues, the budget for state environmental programmes was cut this year.

They include the Clean Air Federal Project, which is tasked with reducing air pollution in dozens of industrial cities, and the Clean County Federal Project, which aims to eliminate toxic waste sites.

The upcoming elections will undoubtedly go in Putin’s favour, analysts say, securing him another term in office. “Putin has some competitors. None of them will get more than 1 or 2 percent” of the vote, said Korostikov of Climate Bonds Initiative, adding that global warming is not a concern for most of  the electorate.

“Nobody’s worried about climate change. People care about ecology. But when it comes to climate, people don’t care because climate change is not felt in Russia,” he said.

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