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25 October 2021

Vladimir Putin won’t attend Cop26, yet Russia has little choice but to engage with climate action

A rapidly changing domestic climate and diplomatic pressure is pushing Russia towards the environmental club.

By Felix Light

In June, amid record-breaking forest fires in Siberia, torrential flooding on the Black Sea and a brutal heatwave in Moscow, a question asked of Vladimir Putin during his annual question-and-answer Direct Line session proved unusually revealing for the otherwise tightly choreographed ritual.

“Vladimir Vladimirovich… What’s going on with the climate? Why has nature gone crazy?”

“Many believe, with good reason, that this is connected primarily to human activity, to emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere,” replied the president, who as recently as 2019 had dismissed the reality of anthropogenic climate change.

Putin’s words may have been mundane, but they reflected a sea-change in Russian government thinking on climate. In the past year, Putin has instructed his government to develop a plan for Russia to lower its emissions below those of the European Union by 2050. In the Far East, the Pacific coast island of Sakhalin hopes to leverage its vast forests to become Russia’s first carbon neutral region. At every level of the Russian government, climate policy is in fashion.

“What’s going on now is very positive,” said Anna Romanovskaya, a Moscow-based climatologist who advises the Russian government on emissions policy. “Understanding of the climate situation has got so much better. The decisions that are being made now are very constructive.”

Despite this apparent conversion, Russia isn’t exactly taking to the climate change fight with gusto. The country has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060 (a target in line with China, though ten years less optimistic than the EU), but a Russian net zero is likely to be one anchored in systemic over-exaggeration about the amount of carbon absorbed by the country’s forests, rather than in radical reductions in emissions. Nor do the decarbonisation efforts of private businesses yet amount to much, which for now are mostly aimed at trimming their own worst environmental excesses than a wholesale energy transition.

And Putin will not attend Cop26 in Glasgow. His absence is hardly a positive signal for international climate negotiations, but it isn’t entirely unexpected from a president whose longstanding aversion to germs has seen him spend almost the entire pandemic in an elaborate personal self-isolation regime.

Instead, Anatoly Chubais, Putin’s unofficial “climate tsar” will represent Russia. Chubais, one of the principal architects of Russia’s free market reforms in the early 1990s, is a singular figure in Russian politics, and his role says much about how Russia will – or not – grapple with climate change.

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Still reviled by many for his role in the economic shocks of the post-Soviet transition, Chubais in 1996 gave Vladimir Putin, then an out-of-work St Petersburg political adviser, his first big break by recommending him for a Kremlin job under the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Putin, widely thought to be intensely loyal to those who have helped him, has kept Chubais close ever since.

Though he has no official policymaking power, Chubais – who has been the leading lobbyist for serious climate action in Russia – is said to enjoy access to, and the personal trust of, the president. In Putin’s Russia, that can count for much more than formal office. If Putin continues to listen to those urging action – and Russia’s regular drumbeat of natural disasters continues – then Moscow may yet accelerate its climate commitments.

Even so, the very real commitment to climate in parts of Putin’s inner circle, for now, carries few guarantees of concrete results. Meaningful decarbonisation implies a wholesale rewiring of Russia’s economy and society. The Kremlin’s climate realists will also run into substantial inertia from parts of a government that is still ideologically committed to, or financially dependent on, the idea of Russia as a fossil fuel superpower.

“Russia’s like a very big ship,” one senior government official who works on climate policy told the New Statesman recently. “It can be steered towards green energy, but it must be done carefully.”

The reasons for Russia’s apparent climate conversion are easy to understand. First, the fossil fuel and metals exporters that still make up the backbone of the country’s economy are profoundly reliant for sales on an EU that is increasingly serious about decarbonising. Their atrocious environmental record now represents a serious risk to national economic security in an era of climate-smart EU tariffs. 

Secondly, there is a recognition in Moscow that with Washington, Brussels and Beijing largely united, for now, on the need for climate action, a simple refusal to engage is no longer viable diplomatically. Though some still entertain fantasies of permafrost melting away to endow Russia with vast new agricultural lands, climate change dismissal is a certain route to diplomatic isolation and irrelevance. Even at the height of this spring’s war of words with Joe Biden, Putin addressed the White House’s Earth Day summit, keen to show himself a good soldier in the war on climate change.

Thirdly, away from geopolitical calculations is a simpler truth: in a Russia that is warming twice as fast as the planet at large, a succession of eerily warm winters, sickeningly hot summers and their attendant natural catastrophes have left the Russian population far more alive to environmental issues. For a Kremlin that likes to stay on the right side of public opinion wherever possible, there should be little choice but to go green.

[See also: The EU climate chief Frans Timmermans: “The planet is probably going to be OK. But we won’t”]

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