Speaking at a climate summit of the world leaders organized by the United States, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for the first time in history, discussed environmental challenges the way leaders of the developed world discuss the issue. Not only did he recognize the need for urgent action to reduce emissions, but he also vocalized a number of concrete steps to be taken by Russia and called for broad international cooperation. However, taking his statements as a cause for celebration would premature, as they will not result in a major shift in policy.
In order to understand the meaning of Vladimir Putin’s message, one needs to take a close look at the energy policies and energy strategy currently governing Russia’s approach to the issue. The statements made by the Russian president are clearly aimed at two goals. The first goal is to convince the global community that Russia is not an irresponsible polluter unconcerned about the climate crisis, but one of the global leaders in combatting climate change. The second one is attracting foreign investments into climate-beneficial projects in Russia by pretending to be genuinely interested in joining the efforts of the global community to address environmental challenges.
Vladimir Putin began his speech at the summit by restating the line long used by the Russian diplomats at the UN climate talks: Russia’s emissions have declined since 1990 from 3.1 billion to 1.6 billion tons of CO2 equivalent due to Russia’s efforts in “restructuring” its industry and its energy sector.
In reality, the drop in emissions did not happen as a result of the concerted efforts by the Russian authorities, but because of the breakup of the Soviet Union, when one country with its many polluters has split into many.
More important than the validity of historic claims, however, is what Russia intends to do to reduce emissions moving forward. According to the Presidential Decree No. 666 signed in November 2020, Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions are in fact expected to rise by almost 40% by 2030 (VTimes; in Russian). Putin might as well have said at the summit: those tons of carbon dioxide that you won’t be emitting, Russia will gladly emit for you.
Today, about 60% of Russia’s energy needs is satisfied by natural gas, 16% by coal, around 13% by oil, 8% by nuclear energy, and 3% by large hydropower (VTimes; in Russian). When the Russian president says at the global climate summit that 45% of Russia’s energy is produced from low-carbon energy sources, he apparently means not the entire energy sector, but only that generating electricity. But Russia is a northern country. A considerable portion of the energy it produces and consumed is thermal energy and not electricity.
Adopted in 2020, Russia’s Energy Strategy 2035 is unambiguous about the development priorities it lays out for the next decade and a half. At a time when the global community is undertaking sweeping measures to cut its use of fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality, Russia is planning to ramp up fossil fuel production. In the next 15 years, according to the Strategy’s rather optimistic scenario, coalmining is set to increase by about 50% and gas-drilling — by almost 40%, while oil production is expected to remain at today’s levels.
For all its booming development around the globe, renewable energy, plays a negligible role in Russia. In 2020, its share in Russia’s energy mix was about 1%, and no serious steps to stimulate its growth are envisaged in government plans. Energy efficiency, which could become one of the major areas of climate work, is all but ignored in the Energy Strategy. Today, Russia uses twice as much energy per unit of GDP as the global average, and three times as much as in the European Union.
No efforts are planned by Russia in the foreseeable future to phase out fossil fuels – on the contrary, production and exports are only set to rise. How, then, is Russia planning to curb its emissions?
In his statements at the climate summit, Vladimir Putin spoke about how Russia’s forests absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide – another point stressed repeatedly by Russia’s representatives at the UN climate talks, much like the position that this absorbing capacity is underestimated by the West. In essence, rather than reducing actual emissions, the proposal Russia routinely makes at the climate conferences boils down to simply changing calculation methods to evaluate its forests’ carbon-absorption capacity. However, there is a problem with that approach: as the UN data shows, the capacity of Russian forests to absorb carbon emissions is rapidly depleting due to aging, fires, deforestation, and other factors (VTimes; in Russian). The most pessimistic forecasts anticipate that by mid-century, carbon dioxide absorption by Russian forests will shrink from 700 million tons in СО2 equivalent per year to a mere 100 million. In other words, Russia cannot hide behind its forests anymore.
The Russian president proposes to increase international cooperation to combat climate change and, speaking of climate solutions, mentions specifically carbon-capture technology, nuclear energy, and hydrogen production. Therefore, when Vladimir Putin speaks of providing incentives for foreign investors willing to participate in climate projects in Russia, the audience is led to assume that he speaks of projects in these areas and not just climate projects in general. Such an assumption is erroneous, unfortunately.
There is a prescient term with established international usage to characterize the technologies mentioned by Putin, and that term is “false solutions.” Nuclear generation, for instance, is too expensive and too time-consuming to establish to efficiently bring down emissions, and, furthermore, it entails risks of nuclear proliferation and large-scale accidents.
The real reason Vladimir Putin is promoting nuclear energy is that reactor export projects are used to increase his political influence in other countries. The loans issued by Russia and backed by the Russian budget for the construction of nuclear power plants abroad amount to about $100 billion, yet no investors unaffiliated with the Russian government are willing to participate in these projects (Vedomosti; in Russian).
Within Russia itself, however, nuclear energy development plans are rather modest: fewer reactors are currently expected to be built than are needed to replace the old units scheduled for decommissioning in the coming 10 years. (Heinrich Böll Stiftung; in German).
Russia has designed a floating nuclear power plant that it plans to export to other countries, which means a rather significant nuclear proliferation risk due to the high level of enrichment of the fuel used. Taking into account the extremely underwhelming potential for emissions reduction that nuclear technology can offer, are we prepared to accept the risk of proliferation of nuclear materials all over the planet?
Hydrogen production is a promising direction – but only if this is green hydrogen, that is hydrogen produced using renewable energy. What Russia has in view is producing hydrogen primarily for the purpose of exporting to Europe – and doing so by using fossil fuels (gas) and nuclear energy. The export potential of such very ungreen hydrogen is quite dubious, since, in contrast to Russia, the rest of the world intends to stop using fossil fuels.
And as for carbon capture, the technology behind the idea is nowhere near as developed or effective as it needs to be to help avert the worst consequences of climate change in the foreseeable future. There are indications that it may be possible to trap some of the emitted carbon dioxide, but no clarity exists as to whether it could be stored for long periods of time with no risk of leakage. And let’s not forget, that carbon capture is deemed a false solution precisely because, while diverting attention from the pressing energy transition needs, it lulls one into a hopeful expectation of continuing to burn fossil fuels for as long as the fuels are there to burn.
As one evaluates all the points made by the Russian president in his speech at the summit, the following troubling picture emerges:
- In the next 10 to 15 years, Russia will ratchet up its production and exports of fossil fuels, increasing global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Russia is somewhat open to technologies that may help it put a green sheen on its policies while concealing its contribution to the growing emissions.
- No development of technologies that could lead to real emissions reductions – those in the fields of renewable energy or energy efficiency – are likely.
- And if one sets aside Vladimir Putin’s climate rhetoric and takes a hard look at the real situation at hand, it becomes very clear that Russia’s climate action is only possible to the extent that it is dictated by Moscow’s export considerations. Within the country, the dirtiest sources of energy will still be in use, while the export shipping routes will carry what will be in demand abroad.
The only real way to decrease Russia’s contribution to the global climate burden, therefore, is to stop importing any fossil fuels Russia has to offer.