Historic climate change agreement pushed in the UN with the help of Russia


The UN climate conference in Paris (COP21) went into overtime, but with the text of the agreement finally ready, the summit has turned out to be a success. During the ten days of intense negotiations, a positive outcome often seemed elusive. But against the odds, the leaders of 195 countries on Dec. 12 reached a unanimous agreement to combat climate change.

Russia played a constructive role in the Paris process, and it can claim its share of the credit in the COP21’s eventual success. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the summit, its positive outcome should give the sense of, if not accomplishment, then at least some geopolitical relief. For the first time in nearly two years, Russia was not singled out as a unique threat to global international order.

While Putin’s appearance in Paris was initially overshadowed by the rising tension between Moscow and Ankara, one could sense signs of thawing relations between Russia and the West. Putin met with U.S. President Barack Obama, took pictures with UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and while the Ukrainian conflict remains unresolved, Russia found some common ground with the West on the issues of terrorism and climate change.

Putin’s address delivered at the start of the summit was short – five minutes – but to the point.  “Climate change is one of the greatest threats humanity is facing,” he said, noting that improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an important priority for Russia.

From 2000 to 2012, Russia reduced its energy consumption by 33.4 percent. An additional reduction of 13.5 percent is projected by 2020. Putin noted that Russia went above and beyond its Kyoto obligations to reduce greenhouse gases. The amount of additional greenhouse gas (GHG) savings by Russia is equivalent to the global GHG output over the course of one year, he said. In other words, Russia delayed global warming by a year.

During the 2000s, Russia adopted a new energy policy that required the reduction of GHG. During the same period, Russia doubled its GDP. That shows that economic development and caring about the environment do not have to be mutually exclusive, even in Russia.

Russia’s progress is impressive, but it should be noted that it was achieved, in part, because Russia started with a very low base. Endowed with the Soviet Union’s industrial assets, Russia’s economy is still one of the most energy-intensive. According to Moscow State University economist Pyotr Kiryushin, in 2012 Russia used twice as much energy per dollar of GDP than the U.S., and three times as much as Japan. And the only country whose performance is worse than Russia is Ukraine.

In part, Russia’s high energy consumption is explained by its primarily northern geographical location. But other major factors include outdated Soviet technology and antiquated production habits, as well as energy subsidies that encourage overuse of fossil fuels. Not surprisingly, the major contributor to greenhouse gases is the fossil fuel industry itself that in 2009 was responsible for 50.4 percent of all industrial pollution in Russia.

Some progress has been made in many sectors of the Russian economy. Examples of improvements are numerous, but two cases are worth noting. Russian electricity-generating stations are increasingly using natural gas instead of coal and oil, and Russian automakers – for example, the Kamaz truck maker – have adopted increasingly stringent European emission standards for their engines.  Both instances are important, as car pollution and power generation are among the top causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Look at China as a dramatic case with the health and pollution impacts that are costly on many levels.

But for Russia, achieving progress in the future will be more difficult. The low-hanging fruit has been collected. Further progress will require money. During the post-Soviet period, Russia still enjoyed the Soviet industrial dowry, which is now nearly fully utilized. Improving energy efficiency and conservation further will require capital investment.

Some improvement may come from disruptive technological innovation. During his speech, Putin mentioned one such potential technology: nanotubes based on the Nobel-prize winning discovery of graphene material by Russian scientists. Graphene nanotubes act as an additive that improves the qualities of basic materials ranging from aluminum to rubber, increasing their durability, and consequently reducing waste.

According to RUSNANO Chairman Anatoly Chubais, who described Russia’s nanotube initiative at the 2nd Annual Innovations for Cool Earth Forum that took place in Japan in October 2015, 27 percent of all greenhouse gases are emitted during the manufacturing and use of basic materials, such as metals, paper, and plastics.

Even if nanotube technology lives up to its stated potential, to fully benefit from technological progress, Russia needs cooperation with the West. It would be difficult for Russia to combat climate change alone, without access to Western capital and technologies, both of which are now out of Russia’s reach due to the sanctions.

Russia has plenty at stake. Global warming may bring occasional benefits – such as a more open Arctic route, but those benefits do not seem worth the risk of eroding shorelines, and other ecological ills that come with a warming climate. The impact on permafrost areas that occupy an area greater than 10 million square kilometers and account for 60 percent of Russia’s territory could be catastrophic.

Russia’s commitment to fighting climate change is genuine, but Putin’s appearance in Paris was also part of his broader charm offensive. One of Russia’s important foreign policy goals is to achieve a lifting of the economic sanctions. This is one of the reasons why Russia has been more cooperative recently – supporting the nuclear deal with Iranand taking a more conciliatory line on Syria.

But at the moment, ending Western economic sanctions on Russia looks even more elusive than reaching a global agreement on climate change.