As the European Union moves closer to an embargo deal on Russian oil, there is much talk about the impact of war-related sanctions on Europe’s energy transition and the world’s decarbonisation efforts.
But the sanctions also have strong implications for Russia’s already slow and rather unsure green transition, be it the modernisation of its energy sector or climate science. What Russia does or does not do matters for the rest of us: the world’s eleventh-largest economy also happens to be the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the second-largest crude oil exporter, and the world’s largest gas exporter. The Russian economy is strongly dependent on the exploitation of energy-intensive industries and fossil fuels, with oil and gas alone accounting for 35-40% of the federal budget revenue in recent years. Hydrocarbons fuel Russia’s elite’s wealth and power but are also framed as a source of energy security and welfare for the country’s citizens.
Russia’s decarbonisation at risk
Until recently, Russia had long been seen as a country with a lacklustre position in international climate negotiations, at best a passive player and at worst an active saboteur of worldwide ambition. However, things have changed over the past years, most notably from November 2021 when its government adopted a framework climate legislation with a net-zero target by 2060. That year alone also saw it introduce a greenhouse gas emission reporting system for large emitters, adoption of its first national Climate Adaptation Plan and initiation of a carbon-trading experiment in its remote far Eastern region aimed at reaching carbon neutrality by 2025.
Some will argue the impulse for these initiatives comes from outside the country. For example, as part of the European Union’s Green Deal package, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is set to place a carbon price on imports entering the European single market from non-EU countries such as Russia from 2026. The border tariff, which would see imports covered by carbon pricing equivalent to Europe’s carbon market, the Emissions Trading System, has been credited with inspiring the Russian government and industry to finally take climate change seriously.
However, with every passing day of war these external incentives lose traction, making Russia’s domestic climate policy more uncertain than ever.
Could Russia leave the Paris Agreement?
On the one hand, it would be mistaken to claim all that is left of Russia’s climate policy is a tabula rasa. The truth is, today’s policy programmes and “green” business strategies do not fully hinge on foreign pressure. Although Russia’s parliament, the Duma, debated leaving the Paris Agreement earlier this week, there remains political will to uphold it. The chairman of the Duma’s Committee on Ecology, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, Vyacheslav Fetisov, for example, has said:
“Russia does not plan to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement [and] is not going to abandon the implementation of this most important environmental international legal instrument.”
State agencies, companies, think tanks and other institutions that have developed “green” strategies over the past years, insist on their enduring relevance for the global fight against climate change, but also climate impacts on Russia and future trade prospects. The climate head of WWF Russia, Aleksey Kokorin, has even voiced optimism that gas surpluses resulting from sanctions could be used to substitute the country’s coal and prompt the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to drop.
And yet, it is undeniable that the economic crisis, sanctions and strengthened anti-Western rhetoric brought on by the war have made it more difficult to pursue decarbonisation plans. Politicians and lobbyists who had already opposed decarbonisation efforts have seized the moment to demand a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Many businesses are taking advantage of the situation to pressure the government to roll back environmental regulation in a bid to help them cope with harsher economic circumstances, with recent bills already pointing in this direction. More specifically, there have been reports of talks between the government and energy companies over the possibility of relaxing greenhouse gas emission reporting and verification. For example, one of the country’s biggest oil suppliers, Lukoil, has pushed the government to scrap a legislation compelling large energy companies to verify their reporting on greenhouse gas emissions with an independent company starting from 1 January 2023.
Import restrictions on technology, the dwindling of foreign capital sources and the freezing of international programmes have further stalled plans to modernise the country’s old industries. Russia’s fledging renewables sector has also taken a hit, with some international investors (including Vestas, Fortum and ENEL) halting their plans in Russia or withdrawing from the country completely.
This has prompted politicians, businesspeople, and scientists to discuss alternatives to foreign technology and domestic options to finance the energy transition.
Bleak future for Russia’s climate science
Moreover, the sanctions have taken a serious toll on climate science in Russia, which matters to those who implement practical decarbonisation measures in Russia, but also to the global science community. It is particularly jarring in relation to other instances in Russian history when scientists succeeded in overcoming political tensions with the West. Despite the Cold War, climate scientists managed to advance global climate science within the 1972 US-USSR environmental agreement enabling the exchange of data, equipment and joint publications.
In contrast, governments and science bodies worldwide have now sanctioned Russian research institutions. Meanwhile, the EU has suspended Russia’s participation in its flagship research programme Horizon Europe and national research councils of several European states paused collaborations with Russia.
Research areas that rely on foreign equipment are particularly affected. For instance, Germany’s Max Planck Institute (MPI) has received a 64-page list with electronic devices that the EU forbids scientists to share with Russian colleagues on the grounds they could be used for military purposes. In early February, the Russian government announced plans to invest 5.9 billion roubles (at the time of writing, approximately $92 million) into climate and decarbonisation research, and create Russia’s own system to track carbon emissions.
However, Alexander Chernokulsky, a climatologist from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told us the future of the project is unclear in the absence of foreign equipment. Similarly, for years Russian and German scientists have been measuring CO2 concentration changes in the atmosphere from a tall tower observatory, ZOTTO, in the southwest Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, considered a “hot spot” because of its potential for large carbon storage or leak. Here again, in an e-mail exchange with us, MPI scientist Sönke Zaehle has warned that the medium- and long-term future of the station are at risk from a lack of maintenance support from the German side.
Research in the Arctic is particularly crucial for our understanding of climate change. At least a dozen international collaborations with Russia have been stalled, here, too. The maintenance of long-term measuring systems crucial for climate modelling poses particular concerns. “There is this fear of a blind spot, no matter what research topic in the Arctic you approach,” Anne Morgenstern, a coordinator of the German Alfred Wegener Institute’s scientific cooperation with Russia, told us.
Climate scientists in Russia have also lost access to the Climate Data Store, which provides a single point of access to a wide range of climate datasets for past, present and future climates, including satellite observations, in-situ measurements, climate model projections and seasonal forecasts. They can no longer either access supercomputers based in other countries, and the departure of technology companies such as Intel will eventually lead to a deterioration of computing capacities in general, according to Evgeny Volodin, a climate modeller at the Institute of Computational Mathematics at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Environmental concerns are at risk of being laid aside during wartime. However, as we stand at a point in earth history at which opportunities to mitigate climate catastrophe are fading, we believe subordinating climate issues to the dictates and temporalities of war is not an option. Attempts to stop the war have to stand alongside efforts to advance transnational climate cooperation and action, despite the damages and dilemmas caused by Russia’s war. Ambitious international climate agendas, including phasing out oil and gas production as quickly as possible, are crucial to increase pressure on the fossil fuel industry and the war machine, and to support those forces within Russia that are still holding on to decarbonisation.
This article was co-written with Angelina Davydova, an environmental and climate journalist. She is currently a fellow of the Berlin-based Media in Cooperation and Transition (MICT) programme and a coordinator with N-ost, a network for cross-border journalism.