Russia and Climate Change — An Unlikely Match

Dana Pjanic |Climate Change Fellow



Image Credit: Daniel Born - via Unsplash
Image Credit: Daniel Born - via Unsplash


Entering 2021, the catastrophic effects of climate change are well understood by many people. Rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and environmental degradation are all phenomena that have received extensive coverage in the media and academic research. What is perhaps less discussed, but should factor heavily in international negotiations about emissions reduction, is how some countries actually stand to benefit from climate change.


For Russia, Canada and Iceland, global warming presents a unique economic opportunity to reap the benefits of natural resources that have thus far been encased in an impenetrable layer of ice and snow. Russia in particular has long aimed to extend its influence in the Arctic, motivated by estimations that there could be as much as $35 trillion (A $45.26) of untapped gas and oil reserves and mineral resources just waiting to be dug up. Domestically, with the Arctic compromising 65 per cent of its landmass, Moscow has had to manage the heavy economic costs of development in the coldest and most inhospitable parts of the country. With such rich rewards in mind, the fact the Arctic is warming two times faster than the rest of the world is not Russia’s primary concern.


The benefits of global warming are not just limited to increased access to these resources. For many people living in the eastern half of Russia, a warming climate has created more arable land to farm, a longer growing season and larger crop yields. Russia was the largest wheat exporter in the world in 2019, and as a share of GDP wheat exports have risen from 1.42 per cent in 2015 to two per cent in 2019. As President Vladimir Putin said himself, climate change could put many Russians in the position of, “spend[ing] less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up”.


Factoring in the nation’s problems with population decline and the possibility that a more temperate climate could encourage more migration to the east, Russia’s dismal contributions to climate action and emissions reduction begin to make more strategic sense. Though Moscow formally adopted the Paris Climate Accord in September 2019, it has also subsequently announced its intention to ‘use the advantages’ of increased temperatures to boost the nation’s economy.


Considering the devastating threat that climate change poses to small island developing states in the Pacific and across the globe, it seems incredibly unfair for a small handful of northernmost nations to be calculating how they can benefit from a looming global catastrophe. Of course, since many nations that have contributed the least to global emissions are also rendered the most vulnerable by their effects, conversations about climate change have never had much room for ideas of ‘fairness’. However, when the representatives of almost 200 countries convene in Glasgow later this year for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) it seems impossible that such negotiations can be conducted without acknowledgement of the huge disparity in the level of threat that each country is facing.


Rather than a criticism of Russia’s hypocritical stance on climate, this amounts more to an indictment of the Paris Agreement itself and the way that it relies on the voluntary action of individual nations. For example, within the Paris Agreement governments make what are called ‘nationally determined contributions’, which detail the level of emissions reduction and financial investment to which each state is willing to commit. Due to the lack of accountability or enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure follow-through on these contributions, countries such as Russia can agree to cut emissions to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. What is laughable is that in 1990, as a part of the Soviet Union, Russia emitted nearly 2.4 billion tons of carbon and can thus continue to increase emissions until 2030 and still reach its targets.


So, considering this critical lack of international accountability, how can global leaders counter such strong arguments from Moscow in favour of letting climate change run its course? Well, of course, despite projections that Russia’s per capita GDP could grow fivefold by 2100, in the interim rapid permafrost thaw could cause tremendous damage to urban infrastructure, risking thousands of kilometres of oil and gas pipelines, in addition to roads, train tracks and bridges across the country. As the ground itself thaws, methane gas and infectious pathogens can even be released. Like many things to do with climate change, the future is uncertain and the severity of its consequences rest on how Russia chooses to prepare itself now.


Despite any perceived benefits that climate optimists predict that Russia could enjoy, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the interdependence of the international system and how one threat can reverberate throughout its whole structure. Simply put, it would be rather naive to imagine that Arctic countries could continue to thrive as their neighbours suffer from more frequent natural disasters, food insecurity and the mass displacement of people. Therefore, instead of counting their eggs before they’ve hatched, Russia’s leaders should instead be bracing themselves and preparing their country for the worst.


Dana Pjanic is the Climate Change Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.