Fossil-fuel giant Russia tiptoes towards low-carbon future

by Angelina Davydova | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 March 2020 17:30 GMT

A view shows figures of camels at Chelyabinsk Pipe Rolling Plant owned by ChelPipe Group during snowfall in Chelyabinsk, Russia February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

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Russia's first 2050 strategy aims to spark debate over how to green its economy, but critics say it's not ambitious enough

By Angelina Davydova

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fossil fuel-rich Russia has for the first time set out a greener economic path for the coming three decades, in a long-term, low-carbon development plan released this week.

It pledges to cut planet-warming emissions by a third by 2030 from 1990 levels when the heavily industrial Soviet Union collapsed, although that represents an increase in Russia's greenhouse gas pollution from today.

Climate experts said the strategy and 2030 target were not ambitious enough but did signal growing political and business interest in tackling climate change in an economy that is one of the world's biggest suppliers of oil, gas and coal.

Under the plan, Russia would not become carbon-neutral until late this century - and only if it implements the cleanest growth scenario outlined.

Russia's Ministry of Economic Development published the draft strategy on Monday, which will now be reviewed by other ministries and business associations before being submitted for government approval by executive order.

The document, almost 70 pages long, outlines four main scenarios for Russia's low-carbon development through to mid-century.

"This strategy draft is the first comprehensive attempt of the Federal Government to look into Russia's economic development trajectory towards 2050 climate goals," Mikhail Rasstrigin, Russia's deputy minister of economic development, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Importantly, it sets specific goals for the key areas where the bulk of energy efficiency effects could be reaped," he added. According to the plan, those areas are industry, buildings, energy generation and transport.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to develop long-term, low-emission development strategies. So far, a U.N. database lists 15 such documents, including from the European Union, the United States, Germany and Japan.

Russia, the world's fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China, the United States, the EU and India, did not officially join the Paris Agreement until September 2019.

In Russia's new strategy, the "basic" scenario – which it deems to be the most feasible - shows emissions growing from now until 2030, climbing about 30% from 2017.

The 2030 projection still represents a 33% cut on 1990 levels. Emissions today, including forest carbon stocks, are already about 50% lower than at the end of the Soviet Union, which saw a shift away from a heavy industrial economy.

The new 2030 emissions reduction target will be announced as part of the country's updated climate action plan due to be submitted to the United Nations later this year, and represents an increase in ambition from its previous goal of a 25-30% cut.

Russia's emissions will be curbed over the next decade through measures including energy efficiency, the introduction of a carbon price, development of renewables and nuclear energy, less clear-cutting of forests and enlarging protected areas.

But that will be offset by higher economic growth and a significant decline in the ability of forests to absorb and store carbon due to wildfires, illegal logging and their rising age, the plan shows.

But, the strategy adds, the carbon intensity of the Russian economy – how much carbon it emits per unit of gross domestic product - is expected to drop by 9% in 10 years and by almost half by 2050 from the 2017 level.

The basic scenario does not foresee carbon neutrality by 2050, although emissions are forecast to start declining after 2030 to reach 36% below 1990 levels by mid-century.

If the government opts for an "intensive" approach, however, emissions could be cut by 48% by 2050, with Russia becoming carbon-neutral late this century, the plan noted.

A woman walks in a park in Saint Petersburg, Russia, October 29, 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Greenpeace Russia said the strategy was welcome but "modest", adding the measures were not enough for Russia to make an "adequate contribution" towards a global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace urged Moscow to aim for carbon neutrality by 2050 through energy efficiency, renewable energy and decarbonisation of transport, alongside a gradual reduction in oil, coal and gas extraction and more forest protection.

Greenpeace does not support what it calls "false solutions" to climate change, including nuclear power or large-scale hydro-electric plants.

Russia's Fridays for Future group of youth climate strikers was critical of the new strategy, saying it meant the country "is not going to do anything till 2050".

"We do not agree to that, because we are already feeling the consequences of the climate crisis in Russia," the group said in emailed comments.

"Being one of the largest emitters in the world, we in Russia need actions which correspond to our share. We want to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem," they added.

NEW ECONOMIC MODEL

Alexey Kokorin of environmental group WWF Russia said climate experts would likely criticise the strategy but it "honestly and openly speaks about problems in Russia, including inertia of its economy, (which is) highly dependent on fossil fuels".

Igor Bashmakov, executive director of the Russian Center for Energy Efficiency and a lead author of a number of key U.N. science reports, said Russia's fossil fuel-based growth model would "not be sustainable in the future".

"We need new drivers for growth, and mainly low-carbon technologies," he said, warning a continued emphasis on fossil fuel markets would lead the economy to stagnate close to its current size by 2050.

Russia relies on fossil fuel exports which will be affected dramatically by other countries' efforts to decarbonise, putting downward pressure on economic growth unless it diversifies, said Igor Makarov, head of the School of World Economy at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

Further risks include the potential introduction of border carbon taxes on Russia's industrial exports and its reliance on outdated technologies, he added.

Deputy minister Rasstrigin said the low-carbon plan would stimulate debate in political and business circles on the "need to transform both the structure of investments and the structure of Russia's economy to ensure robust growth potential".

The result would be "a decision on the scale and speed of Russia's transformation towards a green future", he added.

(Reporting by Angelina Davydova; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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