POSTED 22.02.2023

Text: Angelina Davydova. First published here on 11.1.2023.

Photo: Jaana Denisova

A fall in Russia’s GDP, decrease in its share in the global economy, and depopulation could all reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Russia, but can hardly be seen as genuine decarbonization.

The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the climate and biodiversity was not part of the official agenda at two recent major UN conferences on the environment: the COP27 climate change conference in November and the COP15 biodiversity conference in December. On the sidelines and at parallel platforms, however, the consequences of the war for the climate, the energy sector, food, and biodiversity featured heavily. These discussions demonstrated that far from eclipsing the global environmental agenda, the war in Ukraine has created new problems on the energy market and forced a new appraisal of the transition to renewable energy.

In the months following the invasion, it seemed that climate issues were slipping down the agenda, and that the financing of programs to reduce emissions (primarily in developing countries) would be cut, partly as a result of a sharp increase in spending by Western countries on arms. The threat emerged of a slowdown in decarbonization.

The recent summits, however, demonstrated that such fears were largely exaggerated. There is increasing talk of the interconnectivity between the war in Ukraine, climate change, issues of energy and food security, the destruction of ecosystems, and a reduction in biodiversity.

Some consequences of the war on the climate agenda can already be identified. Firstly, the global energy markets are transforming: many countries have changed their oil and gas suppliers, and are hurriedly building infrastructure for liquefied natural gas, relaunching coal stations, considering extending the lifespan of nuclear power stations (or building new ones), and investing in new fossil fuel projects.

The medium- and long-term trends, meanwhile, remain unchanged: the significance and share of renewable energy sources continue to grow. Investment in this sector is increasing, as is its role in the provision of energy security, and technologies are becoming cheaper and more effective.

Secondly, the war is refashioning global food and fertilizer markets. A whole range of countries are planning to expand grain production and the sourcing of raw materials for fertilizer production, which represents a threat to ecosystems and biodiversity.

Thirdly, reductions in the supplies of metals from Ukraine, along with partial sanctions and limits on supplies from Russia, are transforming global metallurgy. Some of the changes impact the extraction of metals required for global decarbonization and the energy transition, including steel, aluminum, lithium, nickel, copper, and rare earth metals.

Many more spheres linked to climate and biodiversity issues are also changing. With Russian timber suppliers, for example, contending with sanctions, the departure from the country of international certifying structures, and redirection of exports (primarily to China), this has increased the burden on forests in other regions of the world. Finally, we should not forget that the fighting has a direct impact on the ecosystems of Ukraine itself.

Sanctions and trade barriers have put Russia’s climate policies in doubt. There is already a discernible trend toward de-greening legislation, as well as the canceling or relaxing of various kinds of environmental standards, requirements, and checks.

On the other hand, the Russian authorities continue to pass legislation related to the climate and carbon regulation, and new projects are being launched, such as an experiment on the Far East island of Sakhalin to become carbon neutral by the end of 2025. Companies are standing by their emissions reduction targets and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) measures. Events devoted to the climate, decarbonization, and sustainable development are still held regularly, though the international focus has shifted to the experience of Asia, the Middle East, and the other BRICS nations.

At the COP27 UN climate conference in Egypt, Russian business—above all, the state atomic energy agency Rosatom, which has long promoted nuclear energy at international green forums as a safe and low-carbon technology—also spoke out (primarily at panel discussions), together with representatives from the Global South. Employing rhetoric about neocolonialism and the construction of a multipolar world, the Russian authorities are attempting to bring non-Western countries over to their side, including through the use of technological collaboration on green issues.

This amounts to a paradoxical situation, in which on the one hand, Russia is increasingly emphasizing anti-Western rhetoric and the need to create a “sovereign green agenda.” On the other hand, at COP27 and COP15, Russia spoke of the impossibility of excluding individual countries from the global climate dialogue and also called for the removal of sanctions and trade restrictions on low-carbon technologies and goods required for the energy transition.

The Russian authorities continue to talk about the significance of the ecosystems of the world’s largest country in solving climate and biodiversity issues. This emphasis on ecosystems (including, for example, planting forests) has long been characteristic of Russia, and unfailingly attracts criticism from international environmental experts, who accuse Moscow of reluctance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors or to develop renewable energy.

It’s worth noting that at COP27, Russian representatives opposed the inclusion in the conference’s final agreement of articles on reducing the use of fossil fuels or increasing the share of renewable energy, claiming that Moscow’s position stemmed from support for developing countries. Similarly, Russia continues to insist on the principle of “technological neutrality”: that each country can decide for itself how it will reduce emissions. From Moscow’s point of view, this would chiefly entail developing nuclear and gas-powered energy, and the absorption of emissions by forests.

The UN summits demonstrate that Russia remains interested in green diplomacy, something it has been working on since 2014. Following the annexation of Crimea and ensuing sanctions, the country’s representatives became far more active on the green aspects of international collaboration, seeing them as an opportunity to continue dialogue and gain access to technologies and financing.

Now, however, Russia’s problems accessing green technologies and international financing will only grow. Moscow should not hope for much in the way of new partners: they are more interested in getting Russian natural resources at a discount than in high-tech collaboration on green development.

The Institute of Economic Forecasting within the Russian Academy of Sciences predicts that Russia’s potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have almost halved by 2050, mainly due to technological limitations. Still, that will not necessarily prevent Russia from achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. That could happen even without any particular efforts by the state, simply as a result of economic recession, which will automatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A fall in GDP, decrease in Russia’s share in the global economy, and depopulation could all reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Russia. To a large extent, we will see a repetition of the 1990s, when Russian emissions fell by over 30 percent—surpassing the country’s obligations under the Kyoto Protocol—due to a steep decline in industrial production following the economic fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union. But that can hardly be considered genuine decarbonization.