When Russia and the United States agree on something, you know it has to be serious.
This week, the President’s special envoy for climate, John Kerry, quietly traveled to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Ruslan Edelgeriev, his aim was not to talk about the usual thorny issues – cyber attacks and the electoral interference – but of a greater, more existential nature. threat that will affect them both: climate change.
US-Russian relations have fallen to an all-time low under Donald Trump’s presidency. Not much has really improved, but Kerry’s trip to Moscow so early in Biden’s presidency is a notable sign that Cold War enemies could be on the same page about this one thing. , so little else.
Like the world second and sixth biggest polluters, respectively, the United States and Russia agreed on the need to scale up climate action and said they would work together to meet the challenge.
The meeting – and one later with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – set a very different tone from last month’s icy summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lavrov called Kerry “dear John” and said his visit was “an important and positive signal for the development of our bilateral relations.”
Lola Vallejo, director of the climate program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, said the announcement was a testament to Biden’s commitment to the climate.
“They are ready to overcome a very difficult bilateral situation to still have a very high level communication channel on this subject,” Vallejo told CNN.
The trip underscored the U-turn America has made on the climate since Biden moved into the White House. While Trump has abandoned America’s role in global climate talks and withdrawing the country from the Paris Agreement, Biden is a self-styled leader in climate action.
But Kerry’s visit also illustrated a major shift in Russia’s climate policy.
âIn terms of climate action, [Russia] is generally seen as a blocker in international negotiations, âsaid Vallejo.
âSo even though at this point it’s just a shift in the narrative, it’s still positive that there is such a high-level conversation about the importance of climate change and a reaffirmed commitment. ”
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP / Getty Images
Russia is increasingly grappling with forest fires.
For a long time, Russia was one of the countries that argued that climate change was not so bad. Putin once joked, in 2003, that global warming looked good from a Siberian perspective, suggesting that the Russians there might “spend less on fur coats” in the future.
Rising temperatures have brought economic benefits to Russia. The shrinking arctic ice has opened up new sea routes for Russia and allowed exploration of natural resources in previously inaccessible areas. Warmer temperatures in parts of the country have lengthened growing seasons, boosting agricultural production. There is also less need for heating as the number of cold days decreases.
But Moscow’s calculation is starting to change as Russia increasingly suffers the devastating effects of climate change.
A heatwave of 2010 kills 55,000 in Russia, a 25% drop in annual agricultural production and a total economic loss of more than $ 15 billion, according to a study by the University of Oxford.
Meanwhile, melting permafrost in Siberia is causing severe damage to strategic infrastructure. Last year, an oil tank built on unstable ground collapsed due to the thaw, causing one of the worst oil spills ever recorded in the region. Forest fires in Siberia caused losses of nearly 69 billion Russian rubles ($ 1 billion) between 2016 and 2019, according to the Russian government.
âThe impacts of climate change have become much more urgent, acute and obvious, even for governments that weren’t necessarily willing to pay attention to them,â said Vallejo, âand although it is difficult to say how he is sincere [Russia] is and how far actions will actually go forward, it’s fair to say that there is probably a more genuine sense of urgency and alarm about climate change.
The announcement that Russia and the United States have expressed a desire to work together is encouraging. But in climate policy, action matters. And Russia has yet to align its new climate enthusiasm with its actions.
“They use the language of climate so much more in their official rhetoric, their strategy documents, but the problem is that their implementation is going in the opposite direction, they are doubling the production of fossil fuels in the next decade,” said Heather. Conley, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russia depends on its oil and gas industry for about a third of its federal budget. The sector is essential for its finances, but also its role in the region as a major energy supplier helped Russia maintain its influence in Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War.
While Russia has acceded to the Paris Climate Agreement and agreed to cut its carbon emissions – although far from sufficient to bring them into line with its Paris pledge – it certainly does not consider reducing its carbon emissions. phase out fossil fuels anytime soon. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Kerry and Edelgeriev haven’t made any concrete climate announcements this week.
“In my opinion, getting Russia to adjust its economic model is a wild ride,” Conley said, suggesting instead that any cooperation between the two countries will likely focus on mitigating climate change, tackling issues like forest fires or thawing permafrost.
DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP / Getty Images
Moscow was hit by a historic heat wave last week, with temperatures reaching a record 120 years.
âWe have excellent permafrost thaw engineers, just like Russia. We both face the same challenge and our scientists and engineers can work together to find collaborative solutions, âshe said.
But Russia is also aware that climate change is increasingly dominating global political discussions and that if it does not get involved it risks being left behind.
Vallejo said Russia’s current climate engagement could be driven by pragmatism.
“I don’t think Russia suddenly found out that it cares very much about the planet’s fate, but it speaks to the fact that climate change has become a real, concrete geopolitical problem,” she said.
Russia has become more isolated over the past decade. The United States has imposed various sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. The reasons for them vary from human rights violations to Russia’s hostile foreign policy.
Putin wants Russia to be seen as a world power and that the climate could be his path to the world community.
“Mr. Poutine was very happy to have been invited to the virtual conference climate summit that President Biden hosted, âConley said.
“He’s at the table, he’s not isolated, he talks about these big issues, he uses language, saying that Russia understands the changes coming, but [he is] absolutely not ready to take the required internal measures. ”
In the climate community, this kind of attitude has a name. This is called greenwashing.