Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been one of the world’s leading climate change skeptics, sometimes questioning the role humans have played in changing the global climate and even going so far as to suggest that global warming could create new economic opportunities for the country.
In recent weeks and months, however, he has ordered his government to draw up plans for Russia to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and even declare the goal of overtaking the European Union in terms overall reduction in emissions by 2050.
Addressing a meeting of the world’s 20 most developed economies in October, Putin warned that Russia – which is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases – is currently warming 2.5 times faster than the rest. of the planet, exposing it to threats such as desertification and melting permafrost. , which covers about 65% of Russian territory.
It’s a radical departure from a man who once joked that the Russians should embrace climate change because it meant improved grain harvests and smaller fur coat bills.
President Vladimir Putin has made a sort of reversal in his climate policy
Damir Yanakhov, decarbonisation coordinator for the Russian Climate Fund, an NGO working to mitigate the effects of climate change, called Moscow’s 2060 carbon neutral plan “undoubtedly ambitious” as well as extremely difficult .
He told DW that it would take a radical restructuring of Russia’s relationship with energy, starting with the way the country heats its buildings to its export of hydrocarbons – one of the pillars of the ‘economy.
Although it has made noise about coming to terms with the reality of anthropogenic climate change, Russia’s energy strategy for 2035 calls for increased coal production primarily for Asian markets, as well as an expansion of natural gas production – which is widely touted as a controversial transition fuel. on the road to carbon neutrality.
“Such a focus on growing dependence on fossil fuel income poses considerable economic risk in a future world compatible with the Paris Agreement,” wrote Climate Action Tracker, a global research group that monitors actions to reduce emissions, in connection with the 2035 energy strategy.
Russia’s permafrost is melting and shrinking at an alarming rate
Additionally, Putin declined to attend the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland in person, initially choosing to attend by video link before canceling his attendance altogether. No official reason was given.
It’s time to “take the leap”
Nonetheless, in recent weeks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has repeatedly stressed Moscow’s new interest in climate protection, telling reporters that the hot planet is “one of the [Russian] the most important foreign policy priorities.
Despite the apparent inconsistencies, Alexander Lebedev, a lecturer at the Moscow Graduate School of Economics (HSE), remains certain that the change announced by the Kremlin in climate action is serious.
“The Russian government decided there was a good compromise [in making the transition to a carbon neutral economy] and now is the time to take the leap, “he said in comments to DW, adding that Russia’s natural gas wealth, which has a lower carbon footprint than other fossil fuels, will be in high demand. in the short term, especially since the The EU is moving away from coal.
Capturing carbon in Russian forests
Yet Lebedev sees carbon capture as a way to offset the continued extraction of hydrocarbons like gas. Russia has “a great advantage” in its natural spaces which can be used to sequester CO2.
Moscow plans to use its 760 million hectares (1.87 billion acres) of forest as well as its wetlands as carbon sinks to trap a large part of the greenhouse gases produced by Russian industry. This would require extensive protections for existing wild spaces and a shift towards their active cultivation in order to maximize the amount of CO2 they could capture.
A pilot project is already underway on the island of Sakhalin in the Russian Far East. According to government figures, human activity in Sakhalin produces around 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, much of which comes from the extraction of coal and natural gas. Its forests absorb around 11 million tonnes. The hope is that with some changes, Sakhalin’s forests could soon absorb more carbon than is currently produced.
Yanakhov of the Russian Climate Fund agrees that the comprehensive carbon capture plan has potential.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we ended up with a lot of abandoned agricultural land,” Yanakhov said. “If we move these forests to managed forests, we can increase their carbon capture capacities.”
However, he stressed that Russia must also focus on reducing overall emission levels by moving away from fossil fuels.
And some climatologists and economists warn that using Russia’s forests as compensation to justify further CO2 production would amount to giving Moscow a license to continue polluting. In addition, any widespread attempt to decarbonize the Russian economy is likely to encounter major headwinds from the country’s rooted oil and gas lobby.
The branch represents only about 1.5% of the Russian labor market but generates a large part of the country’s wealth. Along with other extractive industries like mining, fossil fuels account for around 60% of GDP, according to government estimates.
COVID crisis sparks environmental concerns
HSE speaker Lebedev says public sentiment is changing and more Russians are concerned about the health of their natural spaces, which have traditionally been a source of national pride.
“I’ve been watching this for a year and a half. When COVID really started with the lockdowns, people became more concerned about their health, their condition and their environment.”
He said the Siberian forest fires that ravaged the country during the pandemic have raised awareness of environmental causes.
It is also a change that Damir Yanakhov has noticed.
“When I watch federal TV channels, you can see that they focus on environmental topics more often, including issues related to climate change. I really noticed this for the first time in August when we had issues. very acute with forest fires. Vladimir Putin said that there are two components of the fires: the human factor and climate change. “