Splitting the Difference? Russia Announces a New Climate Change Plan

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Arctic International Forum in Arkhangelsk, March 2017 [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
by Marc Lanteigne

One of the core questions surrounding the global climate change emergency, including in the Arctic, concerns the degree to which governments and individuals should concentrate on methods of mitigation. This concerns steps and policies to be undertaken in order to eliminate or lessen the effects of climate change, versus adaptation, referring to how one can adjust to the aftermath of what has already taken place in terms of environmental changes, and what conditions may be inevitable regardless of actions taken today and in the near-term.

It is the former path which often receives the most global attention and debate, including during the COP25 Chile / Madrid environmental meetings last month, but methods of adaptation are being debated on many fronts, including on the state level. (There is, regrettably, a third path popular among some governments, including the United States, namely denial, which has in some cases contributed to recent dire events, including those currently being seen in Australia due to the still-burning bushfires on much of the continent.)

The government of Russia released an Action Plan document earlier this month, which appeared to incorporate both the adaptation and mitigation concepts at a time when the country is bearing the brunt of numerous climate change effects in its Arctic regions. The paper, published by the country’s Ministry of Economic Development (Министерство экономического развития), framed climate change as both a threat and an opportunity, detailing means by which its effects can be combated while also noting the economic advantages which Moscow may see as a result of current and emerging environmental conditions including the melting of Arctic ice.

These proposals appear at a time when Russia is facing considerable threats related to climate change, including warming temperatures, (2019 being the hottest on record in the country), loss of permafrost, and harsher weather conditions.

Russia has already seen the effects of changed climate conditions in Siberia last year, when forest fires spread at a massive rate, with the size of the areas affected roughly the third-largest on modern record, (surpassed only by the Brazilian Amazon fires which began last year and the ongoing bushfires in Australia).

The Russian Arctic has been especially susceptible to rising temperatures, as illustrated by records released [in Russian] by the country’s Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring service / Roshydromet (Росгидромет) indicating that Russia’s Arctic territories of Franz Josef Land and Severnaya Zemlya, as well as areas along the Barents and Kara Seas, experienced record temperature spikes in 2019, notably in the mid-autumn. Meanwhile, in Moscow, snow had to be transported to Red Square for the capital’s New Year celebrations.

However, Russian climate change policies have required the walking of a fine line, given President Vladimir Putin’s publicly expressed scepticism that human agency was to blame for climate change, instead suggesting the origin of the phenomenon was difficult to identify despite scientific data to the contrary. Russian authorities have also cracked down on climate protestors in the country of late, and President Putin was critical [video] of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s speech at the United Nations in September last year. However, Russia has been supportive of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and de facto ratified the document in September 2019, (conversely, the United States seeks to withdraw from the Paris plan in November of this year).

The new National Action Plan [pdf, in Russian] on climate change, signed [in Russian] by Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on 25 December, represents a ‘first stage’ of the country’s climate change policies which would be in place until 2022. The document explained specific threats to human health, (including from diseases), arable land, agriculture, permafrost and ecology. At the same time, the advantages of the current situation, such as new shipping opportunities, reduction in heating costs, and the spread of land suitable for farming were also described.

Adaptation policies which were advocated by the document were increases in scientific competence, improvements to human health, and the development of solutions to address extreme weather events. Institutions which would be responsible for carrying out these initiatives include government ministries on various levels, as well as Russian industries, in keeping with the Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation signed in December 2009. In acknowledgement of the tense foreign policy milieu surrounding Moscow at present, there was also a call within the document to guard against ‘dishonesty’ from international actors and to protect Russian interests from fraudulent behaviour by foreign actors.

Among the advantages Russia is seeing from Arctic climate change is the potential for increased maritime activity in the Arctic and the potential for Siberia to be transformed into a major transit hub in the coming decades. Late last month, Moscow introduced a fifteen-year development plan [pdf, in Russian] for the emerging Northern Sea Route (NSR) connecting Asia and Europe via the Arctic Ocean waters north of Siberia.

The Kremlin, Moscow [Photo via Picspree / Getty Images]
This initiative brings together several projects involving the development of regional energy, shipbuilding and infrastructure, and the plan listed eighty-four separate initiatives to be explored in relation to the development of the NSR. Among the most prominent of these recommendations was the construction of various vessels, including icebreakers, to improve the economic and search and rescue capabilities of the region, as well as the development of new infrastructure along key sites such as Arkhangelsk, Chukotka, Murmansk and Sabetta.

There was also a call for the development of space-based monitoring of the NSR via new Express (Экспресс) satellites as well as by other similar spacecraft. Some infrastructure projects, including the oft-discussed Belkomur (Белкомур) railway link between Arkhangelsk and central Siberia, (a venture in which China had previously expressed interest in investing), and the dredging of the Ob River to accommodate increased maritime traffic, were to receive final confirmation only after this year.

Critics of the climate Action Plan noted that its release was overdue, given the mounting evidence during the past few years of the direct effects of climate change on the Russian environment, and there was also the question of whether some economic advantages which may appear in the Russian Arctic will be counterbalanced by negative effects elsewhere in the country. At present, Moscow appears intent to intensify its policies towards climate change in Russia, but with adaptation at the forefront while seeking new ways of turning the melting Arctic into a greater financial advantage.