Russia, the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, is inching closer to ratifying the Paris climate accord by the end of the year, placing Moscow in yet another position to fill a void left by a United States withdrawal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top climate advisor, Ruslan Edelgeriev, plans to give the leader a report by the end of the month outlining the pros and cons of ratification, according to the Kremlin website. Putin could then submit ratification legislation to the Russian parliament to be passed in time for the next United Nations climate change convention, scheduled for the end of the year.
Russia is one of 197 countries that have signed the 2016 Paris agreement, which aims to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. A rise of about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit has already occurred. But Russia is among 13 nations that never formally ratified the document, meaning it is not committed to meeting the framework’s protocols for reducing greenhouse gases causing a global temperature rise.
Last year, an alarming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collection of the world’s leading climate scientists, warned that the planet will face severe impacts even at a 1.5-degree Celsius rise. The panel urged signing members of the Paris accord to adjust their national carbon reduction plans accordingly. But Russia, along with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, blocked endorsing the report. They wanted the conference document only to “note” the study.
Despite its hesitance on climate issues, Russia has hinted before at ratifying the Paris agreement. Moscow now may see fully joining the pact as in its own best interest, experts believe.
Business group pushes for ratification
In January, Russia’s largest business group threw its weight behind ratification, providing new impetus to its passage.
The powerful Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs said its members supported ratification, citing concerns over economic restrictions and competitiveness, according to the daily Russian newspaper Kommersant, which obtained a copy of the letter sent to several ministries.
Ratifying the accord is good for business, which is probably why the union has come out in support of ratification now, said Oldag Caspar of Germanwatch, an environmental policy think tank in Berlin.
Russian businesses and major state enterprises fear falling behind in the global push to develop green energy technology, Caspar said. Ratifying the Paris accord creates a framework for the “more progressive parts of the Russian government to support initiatives for a more innovative Russian economy.”
Russian businesses also recognize that future trade deals with the European Union could be in jeopardy without ratification. The European Commission has said it prefers to deal with countries backing the Paris accord. A 2017 deal between Japan and the EU specifically referred to implementation of the climate accord.
Filling a void left by the United States
Russia continues to challenge U.S. dominance on the world stage.
President Trump announced in June 2017 that he planned to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord.
President Obama had championed the landmark pact at the U.N. climate change conference in 2015, where the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest carbon emitters, emerged as the leaders in pushing for global participation.
Trump said the accord’s commitments to eliminating carbon emissions undermined the U.S. economy and put its businesses at a disadvantage.
The United States can’t officially leave the pact until November 2020, but experts say the nation’s leadership role on climate change issues has diminished since the announcement, leaving a void during subsequent environmental conferences.
“If Russia does in fact fully join the Paris agreement, it casts an even harsher light on Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement,” said David Waskow, the director of the International Climate Initiative with the World Resources Institute. “It will leave the U.S. very much on the outs and very isolated.”
Moscow has sought to insert itself in other areas where U.S. leadership has retreated, including in Syria, where Russia has become the major power broker in that country’s ongoing civil war. Trump has pledged to bring American troops home from Syria, where they are supporting the fight against Islamic State and backing certain rebel groups battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
In another geopolitical power play, Moscow hosted a second round of talks on Afghanistan’s political future between the Taliban and leaders of various Afghan political factions. This followed Trump’s announcement that he planned to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after a 17-year war.
Foraging Russian polar bears go viral
Russia’s steps toward ratification come as images of dozens of polar bears descending on one of its remote Arctic islands in search of food have gone viral.
Bears have been shown wandering in garbage dumps and apartment buildings, at one point walking by a child’s stroller in a residential hallway. Authorities in the Novaya Zemlya region declared a state of emergency over the bears.
Scientists said a combination of thinning Arctic ice linked to climate change and the allure of open garbage dumps drew the group of about 50 polar bears to the small Russian archipelago.
Young workers see future in green energy
A generational change at many of the big, Russian state enterprises has created momentum for shifting to renewable energy technology, said Angelina Davydova, director of the Office of Environmental Information, a nongovernmental environmental policy group in Russia.
“Many younger people working at the big state enterprises have been trained abroad and have seen what is possible,” Davydova said.
Russia has looked to China as a role model for developing its economy, and that nation has been developing renewable energy technology, Davydova said. The Russian government doesn’t want to miss out on any market opportunities, she said.
“Russia sees itself as an energy superpower, but more people are seeing that energy is not just oil, gas and coal,” she said. “More and more people in the government and in state industries now have the understanding that there is a future in renewables.”
The Climate Partnership of Russia, a coalition of Russian companies lobbying for ratification, welcomed the support from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which is seen as the country’s most powerful business group.
“Ratification is a strong boost for green initiatives in Russia, and a major groundwork for economic development,” the Climate Partnership of Russia said in a statement. “This step lets our country efficiently join the world efforts on struggling against malign environmental changes.”
If and when Russia ratifies the Paris agreement, it will still have a major battle ahead to adopt a national carbon regulation policy. Under the accord, each member creates its own goals for curbing carbon emissions.
“The question is will Russia go further and ensure that its emissions don’t continue to rise but instead peak and begin to decline,” Waskow said. “What Russia does will have real substantial consequence on the world.”
Ayres is a special correspondent.