Polar bears feed at a garbage dump near the village of Belushya Guba, on the remote Novaya Zemlya islands in northern Russia in October 2018. This is a military area where bears have began to enter in search of food due to Arctic ice melting. Photo: Alexander Grir / AFP

Given Russia’s previous skepticism about climate change, some eyebrows were raised last week when Moscow announced that it was ratifying the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, underlining the importance of battling climate change, noting that global warming poses  “…a serious threat to Russia’s key agriculture sector and to the safety of people living in the country’s large territories covered by permafrost.”

Medvedev’s statement does, indeed, clarify – albeit without detail – some of the vast and unprecedented risks Russia faces from climate change. Seen in this light, the adoption of the Paris Agreement, part of the UN Convention on Climate Change, would appear to mark a major shift in Moscow’s customarily skeptical position on global warming.

Yet despite Medvedev’s lip service, the lack of any commitment to actually reducing carbon emissions raises questions. In fact, as per the commitments made, Moscow could actually increase its emissions.

Hero or villain?

Russia, the world’s fourth-largest carbon emitter, first signed the Paris Agreements in 2015. That bound the Russian state to formally joining global efforts aimed at keeping the increase of global temperature within 1.5°C higher than pre-industrial levels.

The recent ratification formalizes this process in national policy.

As part of the agreements, which allows each signatory country to determine its own contribution to long-term goals, Russia has pledged that by 2030 the level of its carbon emissions would be 25-30% lower than levels registered in 1990.

This may appear impressive at first glance. At second glance, though, these are in fact, deeply unambitious targets – given that Russia’s emissions have in fact dropped exponentially since 1990.

However, these are not the result of energy efficiency upgrades, but rather a direct consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union and its centrally planned economy.

That means ratification of the agreement won’t result in any implementation costs for Russia. As of 2017, emissions were already 32% lower than in 1990.

Put another way, Russia could potentially increase emissions without infringing on its recent pledge.

Political and business motives 

Given its hazy commitment, the recently announced ratification looks like a zero-cost PR move aimed at improving Russia’s image on the international stage, and a major lobbying group sees it as a way to avoid the risk to of further financial isolation amid western sanctions.

The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), the country’s most powerful business lobby, has put out an official statement warning that not taking formal obligations to combat climate change “might serve as a pretext for the introduction of economic restrictions on Russian companies.”

The RSPP previously opposed ratification of the agreement but shifted its stance recently once it became clear that there wouldn’t any increased financial burden on the country’s key industries.

“The emission drop compared to Soviet times gives us a certain margin which allows us not to force measures that could impact negatively key sectors of our economy,” admitted Yury Maksimenko, RSPP’s chairman for Environmental, Industrial and Technological Security.

Russia is one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels in the world, with natural gas being a critical export. Given this, the country has a strong interest in participating in global climate decision-making – decisions which might affect how energy is produced and consumed.

As pointed out by Deputy Energy Minister Anastasia Bondarenko, Russia’s energy security doctrine is that implementation of international climate policy should not infringe on the interests of energy-producing countries.

“Russia will be defending its interests on all available platforms,” she said during a meeting of the Parliamentary Energy committee last week.

Vets check the health of a young deer outside Yar-Sale on the Yamal Peninsula after an anthrax outbreak in Russia’s far north left a child dead, 23 people infected and the government scrambling to stop any further spread. Scientists say the source is likely to have been long-buried corpses of reindeers uncovered as the permafrost melts – then passed on to grazing herds. Photo: Russian Emergency Ministry / AFP

A melting land

In recent years, Russia has adopted an ambiguous approach to climate change.

At times, it has even been described as a positive phenomenon, since the ice melting in the Arctic is opening lucrative new shipping routes across Russia’s vast northern perimeter, as well granting access to that region’s untapped oil and gas resources.

But a massive and unprecedented downside is now starting to become apparent.

The Kremlin has now been forced to acknowledge that Russia is being hit hardest by climate change. According to state agency Rosgydromet, global warming is taking place 2.5 times faster in Russia than on average in the rest of the world, because of its geographical position.

Some effects of climate change became evident this summer, when surging wildfires devastated millions of hectares of Siberian taiga and floods ravaged the Irkutsk region.

But these are minor developments compared to a far, far greater peril.

If temperatures continue rising, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia’s permanently frozen landmass – a vast geographic region which makes up 60% of the country’s territory.

Melting of permafrost poses threats to “the structural stability and functional capacities” of key infrastructure, as pointed out in a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

According to separate estimates by the Russian Academy of Science, at current rates, the area covered by permafrost will shrink by a staggering 25% by 2080. That shrinkage threatens $250 billion worth of physical infrastructure, including energy pipelines, transportation networks and residences.

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