Russia backs Paris [NGW Magazine]
Russia, the world's fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has formally pledged its support to the 2015 Paris climate deal.
The prime minister Dmitry Medvedev signed documents on September 23 stating that Russia had adopted the international accord, according to the Kremlin's website. Although Moscow stopped short of formal "ratification", it said the decree still signalled "Russia's consent to the obligations under the Paris Agreement."
"The threat of climate change is [the] destruction of the ecological balance, increased risks for the successful development of key industries ... and most important, the threat to safety of people living on permafrost and the increase of natural gas emissions," Medvedev said at a government meeting.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, known for his past scepticism of man-made climate change, would appear to have changed his stance. By adopting the Paris deal, Russia is committing itself to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions to 70% of their level in 1990 by 2030. While this may seem an ambitious goal for a country whose economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction, in reality the target is already close to being met.
Setting 1990 as a benchmark is problematic, to say the least. Russia's CO2 emissions reached an all-time high that year of 2.379mn mt, according to the European Commission (EC). This was largely the result of decades of Soviet practices that gave little heed to either the environment or industrial efficiency. Most associated gas produced at oilfields at that time was considered a waste product and simply flared rather than utilised, for example.
In the years following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, emissions fell dramatically as Russia struggled with economic malaise, dipping to 1.589mn mt by 1996, EC figures show. Russia enjoyed heady economic growth during the 2000s, causing emissions to creep up once again. But improved environmental practices – anti-flaring legislation for one – helped keep them in check.
The EC estimates Russia's emissions for 2017, the last year for which it provides data, at 1.765mn metric tons (mt), representing 74% of their level in 1990. In its Statistical Review of World Energy, BP suggests Russia may have even surpassed its target, achieving emissions of 1.551mn mt or 69% of the 2.235mn-mt estimate it provides for 1990.
As such, Russia's ratification is largely symbolic and unlikely to lead to practical change. In order to make a significant dent in its emissions, the country would have to make serious progress in diversifying its economy away from oil and gas, and invest substantial sums in making its other energy-intensive industries such as mining and metallurgy more efficient.
Past efforts by Moscow to build up alternative sectors of its economy have had limited success. The issue of diversification is brought up more often during times of economic hardship – namely following the 2008 financial crisis and the 2014 oil price crash. In these cases, once Russia's economy recovered, talk of diversification quietened down.
Russia could make some progress on carbon reduction in its power sector, by replacing coal with cleaner fuels. The country currently produces around a fifth of its power from burning coal, with gas accounting for close to half and nuclear, hydropower and renewables the rest.
Moscow's $29bn upgrade programme of its thermal power plants (TPPs), initiated last year, was skewed towards upgrading gas power plants, while fewer coal-fired stations were selected. But there are limits to how quickly Russia can phase out coal. Most TPPs in western Russia run on gas, which is amply available. However, many of its eastern TPPs use locally sourced coal. Russia would have to invest in expanding gas infrastructure and developing resources to establish it as the main provider of baseline power capacity in eastern Siberia and the Far East.
Russia has also been holding capacity auctions since 2013 for wind and solar power projects. While in past years these contests have drawn substantial interest from developers – 850 MW of wind and 149 MW of solar was awarded in 2018 alone – the high tariffs offered are unsustainable. Recognising this, the government's offering was much smaller this year, and only one 71.3-MW wind and one 5.6-MW solar project were awarded.
Transport is also being cleaned up, marginally, as Gazprom is building networks of compressed natural gas filling stations. Its annual three-week Blue Corridor rally, which began in 2008 and takes in Turkey and southern and central Europe, is due to finish in St Petersburg October 3. And vehicle manufacturers such as Kamaz are making the equipment – sometimes in partnership with western firms – for cars and heavy duty lorries that run on CNG or LNG.
Gazprom says the average price of gas is rubles 16/m³ and drivers pay about rubles 1.6/km. In terms of fuel consumption, 1 m³ of methane is equivalent to 1 litre of gasoline.
With only the lax goal of keeping emissions in line with their current levels, Russia is unlikely to reflect too seriously on ways it can reduce its carbon footprint. At the same time, Moscow is occupied with ways it can benefit from global warming – first and foremost increased traffic along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Receding ice has made the route along Russia's Arctic shore viable for international shipping for longer seasons. It has also made prospecting for oil and gas offshore more attractive.