Should Russia do more about climate change?
Russia's position at the UNFCCC COP21, leading to adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement, commented by experts from HSE and other think tanks.
When the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) opened in Paris on 30 November newspaper headlines were hyping up the importance of the meeting presenting it as the last 'now or never' opportunity. World leaders were proclaiming their commitment to a cleaner future, diplomats were sharpening their pencils before two weeks of intense negotiations, lobbyists were making last minute calls. However, the atmosphere in Russia was different: though President Putin in his short speech stressed the economic cost of climate change and applauded Russia's progress, one could not shake off the impression that his population simply did not know or care enough about the issue.
Russia and climate change: nothing to do with me approach
Russia is the fifth largest emitter of CO2 after China, United States, European Union and India. It is one of the biggest producers of fossil fuel and has vast areas of carbon sinks (forests which absorb CO2). Though Russia obviously holds a huge stake in climate change it played only a minor role in the negotiations. Russia's ratification of Kyoto Protocol was crucial to its success back in 2004, but last year President Putin allegedly only promised not to block any deal backed by major countriesand got out of the way.
Internally, the topic of climate change has not got much attention either. President Medvedev launched the Climate Doctrine in 2009 which was an important symbolic move but funding or plans of implementation failed to follow. Russia took first practical steps in its climate policy only in 2013 with the approval of a package of legal initiatives supporting the development of renewable energy and setting a target of 25% emissions reduction by 2020 compared to the 1990 base level. However, it only sounds ambitious as Russia has already overfulfilled its commitment due to the dissolution of carbon-intensive Soviet industries and economic downturns. The initial goal of producing 4.5% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 has recently been reduced to a more modest 2.5% whilst Russia continues to extract, consume, and export as much fossil fuels as ever.
The population seems to understand the direct effect of pollution but fails to connect it with global trends. According to a 2015 survey, 88% of Muscovites think that the ecological situation in their neighbourhood is bad rather than good (national average – 52%), but their biggest worries are air and water pollution (68% and 55% of the surveyed Muscovites respectively) rather than climate change (35%). According to them, pollution is most harmful to human health and the surrounding green areas.
Real dangers of climate change
The real dangers that climate change poses to Russia go well beyond the disappearance of local parks. The first to fall is the agricultural sector which has already suffered during the droughts of 2010 and 2012. Georgy Safonov who is the Director of the Centre for Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the Higher School of Economics has calculated that about a third of the harvest was lost in 2010 and about a quarter in 2012 with total losses exceeding RUB 300bn. Moreover, poor harvest and the resulting higher price of crops hit the poorest groups of the population the hardest. Pensioners and poor families are the ones who spend the largest proportion of income on bread and other crop products. Carrying on business as usual Russia stands to incur annual economic losses from climate-induced decreases in crop yield of RUB 108bn by 2020, and even a more staggering RUB 120bn by 2050, yearly. Volga and Ural regions would bear most of the economic cost. According to Mr Safonov, Russian crop producing companies are already in trouble as their debt-to-equity ratio is around 35 which is very high, especially in an industry as prone to unpredictable weather events as agriculture. In the worst-case scenario – a few bad harvest years in a row, agricultural companies going bankrupt, bread price skyrocketing - Russia may become a net food importer instead of one of the main exporters as it is now.
The impact of climate change on human health is multifaceted and costly. Global warming on one hand may increase air humidity thus easing the spread of infectious diseases, for instance, through more ubiquitous mosquito populations. On the other hand, it fastens the melting of permafrost and intensifies water flows which can lead to catastrophic floods taking human lives and expensive infrastructure with it. For instance, the 2012 flood in Krasnodar region is estimated to have caused $400m in damages. Moreover, global warming has a direct effect on human health through increased frequency of extreme weather events – heat waves and colds. A leading Russian public health expert Boris Revich has shown that abnormal temperatures (well above or below the average 18'C) correspond with increased non-accidental mortality, especially due to coronary heart diseases and cerebrovascular accidents (heart strokes). The elderly are the most vulnerable.Another piece of research claims that in 1990s Russia, 2000 to 4000 deaths annually could be linked directly to air pollution (carcinogens present in air cause cancer). As climate change intensifies the ensuing health dangers are only likely to become more and more costly both in economic and human lives terms.
Unfortunately, Russia cannot expect things to get better by themselves. Though some have voiced opinions that global warming is actually good for the cold Russia as it opens more land for cultivation and helps save on heating, the emerging scientific consensus says otherwise. Most of the regions would see a decrease in crop yields as crop infections and damage from extreme weather events far outweigh the gains from new land. Voeikov Main Geophysical Observatoryestimates that over the course of the 21st century the average temperature in some regions might rise as much as 6'C with fastest warming in the North of Russia which further exacerbates the permafrost problem. Can Russia do anything about this?
Doom and gloom or happily ever after
There is no silver bullet solution to the dangers posed by climate change, but more can and should be done both domestically and internationally. First of all, Russia is in a better position than other petrol states such as Saudi Arabia because it has a vast array of energy alternatives. The Deputy Director of the Russian State Institute of Energy Strategy Pavel Bezrukikh states that renewable sources of energy could cover up to 35% of Russia's primary supply. Different regions have different options – solar energy in the South, geothermal in Far East, and tidal energy in coastal areas – but taken together they present a way to increase energy security, considerably bring down CO2emissions, and profit from greater fossil fuel exports. Moreover, developing the renewables sector would allow Russia to kickstart the so-needed high-tech industry producing photovoltaic panels, geothermal units and wind turbines. It could be another 'space race' to keep country's engineers busy.
However, Mr Safonov, while he supports the idea, is more sceptical about the green revolution. According to him, there are economic and political reasons for his scepsis. First, Russia has been building a fossil fuels based economy for decades. It has made billions of investments into oil refineries, gas burning electricity plants and transmission infrastructure all of which take decades to pay off. The current path dependency simply does not allow Russia to jump on the renewables train, at least not without huge investments and important political decisions neither of which seem likely in current economic conditions. Secondly, Mr Safonov has stressed the importance of political influence. The current political elites are closely intertwined with the energy sector. In fact, the main energy companies are publicly owned so the government is going to be the last to push for the green revolution! Oil and gas lobbying activities are simply too powerful for any meaningful changes to happen in the nearest future, but a prolonged era of low oil prices and technological advances could soon balance the scales.
Yes we can, and yes we should
Despite general ignorance and disinterest of politicians, global climate change is posing a grave challenge for Russia. It threatens its agriculture, it may lead to food shortages, and it is already damaging infrastructure and human health. Economic and human costs of climate change are already high and they will only increase if Russia carries on business as usual. Fortunately, there is an alternative route – the green revolution. Russia has vast untapped resources of alternative energy which could increase its energy security and provide a needed boost for the economy. Whether it happens will depend on the state of technology as well as political trends in the country. Russia is at the crossroads of two paths – the only-too-familiar fossil fuels rent economy, or a real value creating technologically adept one which is not at odds with the population's welfare. Russia would do well to choose the latter.