Will the heat-wave and drought that created so much havoc in Russia this summer cause the leadership in that country to take climate change seriously? The answer is important: Russia is the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, behind only China and the US. Yet Russia’s attitude to climate change to date has been cavalier, at best.

Indeed, until recently its leaders seemed to believe climate change would be beneficial. Warmer weather would open up the Arctic’s mineral wealth, create new shipping routes along its northern coasts, and extend agriculture into infertile areas. At a conference in 2003, Vladimir Putin, then president, even said global warming would merely mean that “we Russians will spend less on fur coats”.

This summer’s disasters – in which the country lost some 25 per cent of its grain production– should have brought home the naivete of this view. No one can say with certainty that the fires were influenced by climate change. Yet they are the sort of disasters that lie ahead if warming is not held in check.

Russia, by virtue of its size and variable continental climate, is unusually vulnerable to the extreme weather that climate change will bring. Flooding, in particular, will be a problem for coastal cities such as St Petersburg. Changes in the flow of rivers, storms, melting ice and many other hazards will cause difficulties, too.

Russia’s leaders had slowly begun to change their tone even before this summer. A climate plan was endorsed by the government in 2009. President Dmitry Medvedev announced in the run-up to the climate change meetings in Copenhagen that Russia would accept a target of reducing its carbon emissions by 15-20 per cent below 1990 levels, later elevated to 20-25 per cent.

Critics correctly point out, however, that even these higher figures would see Russian carbon emissions increase, once the effects of the collapse of Russian heavy industry are taken into account. Mr Medvedev may have agreed to them in part because, as yet, little follows from their acceptance. Even so, they mark an encouraging shift of emphasis.

Mr Medvedev has also recently stressed the importance of achieving greater energy efficiency, an important step given the profligate way Russia uses energy. In a recent speech he also explicitly linked the heat-wave to climate change. What he has not done, so far, is to take the necessary next step, and link his new-found awareness of the dangers of global warming with wider plans for Russia’s economic modernisation.

These are ambitious: to transform Russia’s competitive base over the next 10 to 15 years, and lessen its dependence on oil, gas and minerals. Many have said such goals are unrealistic. They might add that boosting investments in clean energy technologies to them would only render them more so. But I would argue strongly that the reverse is true.

This is not only because of the economic damage that climate change will eventually unleash. Taking steps to reduce carbon emissions, and collaborating with the international community to do so, could stimulate Russian economic development, rather than inhibit it. Indeed, responding to climate change could become a major vehicle for the economic modernisation the leadership seeks.

Countries that bring up the rear in investment in low-carbon technologies and lifestyles are likely to become progressively less and less competitive. Oil and gas, which contribute so heavily to Russia’s gross domestic product, are now sunset industries, at least in their current form. Russia must look to become a leader in the emerging technologies that will update these sectors; for instance, the carbon capture and storage techniques that will soon be applied widely both to gas and coal-fired power stations.

Vanguard states, such as Germany, Portugal, China, South Korea – and significantly, several of the leading oil and gas producing countries in the Middle East – are already investing heavily in these areas. If it does not move quickly, Russia risks being left further behind.

Yes, changing such industries is expensive. But where there are significant costs Russia should seek help, both from other nations and international organisations. The emissions permits Russia already holds as a result of signing up to Kyoto could be put to good use, to fund more environmentally responsible policies. This would build on moves in July, when – finally starting to make use of its carbon credits – the government endorsed 15 clean energy projects.

The rest of the world has a further strong interest in helping Russia: limiting the damage likely to result from the effects of global warming upon Russia’s frozen peat bogs. As they melt, these huge sinks of carbon will release vast amounts of methane into the air – and methane is a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2. Serious outside investment could come Russia’s way to help develop ways of limiting this process, especially if Russia itself began to sound more receptive to outside help.

Can a country that has found it difficult to break from its reliance on oil and gas revenues, and to modernise other industrial sectors, feasibly make this kind of transition? It will be testing, to say the least. The sense of emergency may soon fade when the temperatures drop. Support from other countries will be essential. Yet it remains in Russia’s strategic interests to take climate change seriously. If its leaders can take this on board and communicate it to the public, the sense of fatalism in the face of disaster, coupled to bureaucratic stasis and corruption, that so often inhibit innovation in the country can be challenged. If not, Russia’s plans to modernise its economy will be undermined before they have begun.

The writer is emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, and author of The Politics of Climate Change

Get alerts on Climate change when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article