Let it burn Russia has a new climate plan. None of the scenarios in it involve decreasing greenhouse gas emissions at all between now and 2050.
Russia is currently the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, but its climate policy is changing in unprecedented ways. In September 2019, Moscow signed on to the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the heating of the planet below disastrous levels. Since then, climate activists in Russia have also ramped up pressure on government officials to decrease emissions. They’ve seen diplomatic results, from private meetings to press conferences.
However, the policies now emerging from those efforts involve holding emissions steady for the next 30 years and even letting them increase, the Russian business newspaper RBC has found. Climate scientists, meanwhile, have issued repeated warnings urging immediate, drastic decreases in greenhouse gas emissions.
On March 23, RBC correspondent Alina Fadeyeva summarized a leaked document from Russia’s Economic Development Ministry that contains four possible tracks for Russia to follow in addressing climate issues. A Ministry representative confirmed the document’s authenticity. Even under the most ambitious of the four plans, Russia’s greenhouse gas efforts would be 50 years behind the track international scientific bodies say is necessary for human society to survive.
The Economic Development Ministry called its four scenarios “inert,” “basic,” “intensive,” and “no government support.” Its report recommends following the “basic” scenario. Under this plan, the Russian government would take steps to ensure that emissions levels in 2050 are 36 percent lower than they were in 1990. To reach that goal, officials would systematically increase energy efficiency in the Russian economy and encourage forest preservation. They would not take steps to transition away from fossil fuel use.
The “intensive” scenario adds several policies on to the “basic” plan’s set. These include putting a carbon tax in place, mandating that corporations disclose the carbon impacts of their products to consumers, and creating commercial incentives for solar power development. Under the “intensive” plan, emissions would be 36 percent lower than they were in 1990 within the next 10 years, and by 2050, they would have decreased by 48 percent. This would put Russia on track to reach “net zero” by 2100, meaning it would take in as many greenhouse gases as it puts out.
The catch is that measuring emissions decreases from 1990 rather than from the present day means something very specific in Russia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian manufacturing levels plummeted, bringing greenhouse gas emissions down with them. While countries like the United States neither increased nor decreased emissions between 1990 and 2017, and China and India saw emissions multiply, Russia’s emissions dropped by about half for economic reasons, RBC noted.
That means Russia can ‘decrease’ emissions from 1990 by half without doing anything at all. In fact, even the 48-percent decrease from 1990 levels outlined in the “intensive” scenario would represent a 2.6-percent increase over 2017 levels. All of the Economic Development Ministry’s four scenarios would involve letting emissions increase by at least a quarter in the next decade. Under the “basic” scenario, Russia’s emissions would rise by more than 26 percent between 2017 and 2050.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, wrote in a major 2018 special report that for society as we know it to persist, global emissions will have to be cut in half by 2030 and brought to net zero by 2050. A number of prominent scientific figures have written papers or letters to scientific journals arguing that emissions will actually have to decrease even faster to avoid natural and geopolitical disasters triggered by global warming.
Alexey Kokorin, the climate and energy program director for Russia’s branch of the World Wildlife Fund, told RBC that even if Russia sticks to the Economic Development Ministry’s “basic” plan for now, it is likely to set more ambitious climate targets in the future. The Ministry’s own report predicts significant climate-related economic damage in Russia beginning around 2040, but international pressure to do more will probably ramp up as much as a decade sooner, Kokorin said.
Kokorin also noted that as countries around the world place taxes on fossil fuel production, Russia is likely to do the same, if only to direct some of the money derived from global fuel regulations into its own coffers.
Still, as Yury Melnikov explained, concern for Russian business interests will place significant limits on the government’s actions. Melnikov is a senior analyst at the Energy Center within the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO. He said that the newly designed “intensive” scenario would very likely keep Russian emissions at current levels, especially because the Ministry used relatively high long-term economic growth estimates. If Russia does not meet those growth targets, which seems increasingly likely, it will essentially meet its climate goals automatically.
The Economic Development Ministry representative who spoke with RBC noted that either of the Ministry’s new plans would be significantly more ambitious than the climate goals Moscow announced in 2018, before it approved the Paris Agreement. He added that Russia’s emissions have decreased since 1990 far more than those of any other country, slowing down the timeline of global warming by almost a year.