AXIS OF INACTION: U.S., Russia Could Team Up to Impede Climate Response
Take the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas-producing country, and the only major emitter that has not ratified the Paris Agreement.
Add a country that spent eight years as a global climate leader, but is now assembling a federal cabinet populated largely by fossil fuel executives and climate deniers.
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Stir, simmer, and you may well end up with Russia and the United States supporting each other as they drag their feet on climate change action.
Russia submitted one of the weakest greenhouse gas commitments ahead of the 2015 United Nations climate summit in Paris, and has since laid out a timetable that will delay its ratification of the Paris accord by nearly three years. Now, “a new alignment between Russia and a friendlier United States under [U.S. President Donald] Trump could slow climate action even more,” InsideClimate News reports. “Trump denies global warming more nakedly than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pivoted from years of downplaying climate change to calling it a grave threat in 2015, but has done little to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. Russia’s sluggishness on climate could bolster the Trump team’s plans to abandon climate action, and vice versa.”
ICN profiles the Russian Federation as a petro-state with a history of climate denial and inaction. “It was the world’s second-largest exporter of oil in 2015, after Saudi Arabia, and its biggest exporter of natural gas,” writes reporter Neela Banerjee. “Recently, some in the government and Russian business have begun taking steps to shift away from fossil fuel dependence. But that progress may slow now that the United States, the world’s second-biggest emitter, is shifting its priorities toward increased fossil fuel production.”
U.S. news reports, meanwhile, have connected the Trump administration’s affinity for all things Russian to ExxonMobil’s business interest in the country’s massive offshore oil fields in the Arctic. Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of State earlier this month.
ICN recalls that Russia managed to set unambitious climate goals by picking 1990 as its baseline year for greenhouse gas reductions. That moment was a “relatively high mark” for the country’s emissions, since “the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Russian industry produced a steep drop in emissions” beginning in 1991. The country actually hit its 30% GHG reduction target in 2014, even though its emissions have grown by about 1% per year since 2000.
“These targets have basically allowed the economy to develop along business-as-usual lines,” Climate Action Tracker concluded, based on UNFCCC data.
Yet Russia has been slow to accept the scientific consensus that fossil production fuels climate change, or the economic reality that its dependence on oil, gas, and coal produces “great swings in fortune as prices of those commodities rise and fall,” ICN notes.
“It’s not a question of logic, but rather one about ideology,” explained Vladimir Chuprov, head of the energy unit at Greenpeace Russia. When and whether to ratify the Paris Agreement “is about whether Russia is ready to go green or not, phase out fossil fuels or not.”
Politically, Chuprov added, Russian climate advocates are at a distinct disadvantage. “Fossil fuels are richer and in a better lobbying position and they are much, much stronger,” he told ICN. “The coal companies are the most aggressive, but oil also doesn’t want to ratify the Paris agreement because it would mean the stoppage of the oil economy and an end to all the subsidies oil gets.”
While Russia’s weak climate targets may not have much impact on American policies, the reversal of the U.S.’ past support for climate action “would deal a blow to the emerging pro-climate voices in Russia,” Banerjee writes, citing environmental journalist and St. Petersburg State University lecturer Angelina Davydova.
“Russia looks to the U.S. and China’s plans on climate change,” Davydova told ICN. “China might be getting more climate-oriented, but if the U.S. pulls out of Paris, it’s a huge argument to Russia to go even more slowly.”