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Russia has lots of gas – but needs a lot of heat. Ilya Naymushin / Reuters

Paris climate talks: Russia will use its huge forests as a bargaining chip

Russia has a reputation as one of the more difficult states involved in international climate negotiations – and don’t expect things to change at the latest UN conference in Paris. After all, this is a country with vast oil and gas reserves, brutal winters and a strong sense of its own economic self-interest.

Three main factors will influence Russia’s strategy at the talks. It will want strong recognition of the role forests play in the climate, which would put the country and its 640 billion trees in a good position from which to negotiate emissions reductions.

It will also want commitments from other countries before signing up to a deal – Russia is one of the strongest supporters of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle in climate politics.

Finally, the country is very unlikely to commit to a deal that will put any pressure on its economic development.

As one of the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters in the world, Russia has previously been among the countries standing in the way of global climate agreements. It took more than six years for Moscow to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, for instance, which eventually brought the treaty into effect.

This behaviour was explained by political and economic issues which often had little connection with the climate itself – the Kyoto ratification was also held up by negotiations on WTO accession, for instance.

Yet this time round the headline pledge is, on the surface, very strong. Russia’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) submitted in March 2015 commits the country to cutting its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25-30% of the 1990 level by the year 2030.

Hundreds of billions of trees can store a lot of carbon. Tatiana Bulyonkova, CC BY-SA

Such cuts will be possible, Russia says, as it has already broken free from the direct correlation between economic development and GHG emissions. The INDC points out that between 2000 and 2012, for instance, GDP increased 72.9% while GHG emissions increased by just 11.8%. Despite this, Russia’s economy is still considered carbon-intensive due to continuing high levels of emissions per unit of GDP. This is mostly explained by its natural resources, severe winters and outdated and energy-inefficient buildings and infrastructure.

Climate change has slowly entered Russia’s official and public discourse. Even the president, Vladimir Putin, is talking about it these days – he mentioned climate change during the latest UN General Assembly meeting. The latest pledge is certainly a step up from previous promises such as in Copenhagen where Russia only committed to a 15-20% GHG reduction, and the country’s government has set out its plans to address climate change in presidential decrees, national laws, an official climate doctrine and even the state’s energy strategy.

Read the small print

However the economic collapse which followed the dissolution of the USSR makes it far easier to reach any target pegged to 1990 levels. Most of the country’s heavy polluting industries failed, causing emissions to drop hugely throughout the 1990s – and they haven’t yet recovered. In fact, to achieve its latest targets, Russia doesn’t even need to cut its emissions.

A large oil refinery in Bashkortostan, central Russia. Oil has become increasingly important to the country’s economy. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Furthermore, some of the energy efficiency steps which can be counted towards the climate mitigation strategy, such as the modernisation of the energy sector or improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings are in Russia’s best economic interests. It is likely they would have been considered anyway, even without any international obligations.

Russian resources – good and bad

Traditionally Russia places particular emphasis on the huge taiga which covers much of Siberia and contains more than 70% of the world’s boreal forest. The INDC specifically mentions that the pledge is “subject to the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests”, which in turn is supposed to give some leeway for other industries to continue emitting. However, Russian environmentalists and specialists doubt the forests will have as much impact on the state’s emissions as the government claims.

The Russian economy is shaped by the country’s gas reserves – the world’s largest. The largest gas, oil and electricity companies are either directly owned by the state or share very close ties with it. Concepts of energy and state security go hand-in-hand in Russia and fossil fuels are often seen as an important political tool, as demonstrated in numerous gas disputes with neighbouring Ukraine, Belarus and others.

All this means Russia is unlikely to spring any surprises in Paris. It will most likely continue to communicate the same message of pursuing a 25-30% GHG emissions cut, while underlining the importance of its forests and that the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle must be observed. Russia will keep prioritising its economic and political stability, thus, any commitments will be the result of careful calculations of whether they will upset that balance.

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