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Explainer: Climate Change And The View From Moscow

A girl wearing a protective mask looks out from her balcony in the village of Beloomut, near Moscow, during serious forest fires caused by a heat wave in 2010.
A girl wearing a protective mask looks out from her balcony in the village of Beloomut, near Moscow, during serious forest fires caused by a heat wave in 2010.

MOSCOW -- Russia's size and broad range of environments, from the arid southern steppe to the frigid Arctic, expose the world's largest country to many aspects of climate change.

President Vladimir Putin is one of dozens of leaders expected to attend a UN conference on climate change that starts in Paris on November 30, a crucial step in the global push to keep temperatures from rising to increasingly dangerous levels.

Ahead of the Paris conference, RFE/RL takes a look at what climate change means for Russia, and what we can expect from Moscow at the meeting.

Is climate change affecting Russia?

Yes, in two main ways:

-- Gradual Impact:

Long-term effects include the thawing of the permafrost, the northward retreat of the tundra and the advance of the taiga, the melting of Arctic ice, a rising sea level, and significant northern coastline erosion.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a prominent Russian newspaper, this month cited German research predicting that temperatures in Russia will be 1.5 degrees Celsius higher in 2020-29 than they were in 1980-89. In western Siberia, the predicted increase is 2 degrees.

-- Extreme Weather:

Many scientists, activists, and officials have linked manifestations of extreme weather, such as heavy rain, heat waves, cold snaps, and violent storms, with climate change. Aleksei Kokorin, the head of the WWF Russia environmental group's climate and energy program, says climate change has led to more natural disasters.

In the last five years, there has been a series of natural disasters with serious implications for Russia and its economy. In 2010, a heat wave stoked deadly wildfires that blanketed cities with acrid smoke, and prompted Russia to impose an embargo on grain exports.

In 2012, flooding in the southern town of Krymsk killed 171 people, and a group of scientists this year ascribed that flooding to a freak downpour they said was made possible by rising temperatures on the Black Sea.

Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoy said this month that Russia experienced 569 "dangerous meteorological occurrences" in 2014, the most it has recorded in a single year.

Does this mean climate change is only bad news for Russia?

Not entirely. Russian officials and scientists believe climate change poses challenges for the country, but also presents opportunities. Some argue that warmer temperatures in Russia's northern climate will make the Arctic easier to develop and less hostile to work in.

Possible pluses:

-- The thawing and gradual opening up of the Northern Sea Route, the piracy-free Arctic shipping lane under Russian control which connects the Atlantic and Pacific.

-- More access to energy resources that are currently difficult to extract because of hostile, freezing climes.

-- A shorter winter could mean less energy expended on central heating.

-- Better conditions for agriculture in the north.

Possible minuses:

-- Thawing permafrost damaging infrastructure built for colder climes. Around 60 percent of Russian territory is covered in permafrost.

-- Significant northern coastline erosion and river embankment erosion.

-- Rain and snow falling less often, but with higher intensity.

-- Increasing risk of wildfires, floods, and other disasters, according to some scientists.

A man pours water out of a residential home affected by a disastrous flood in the southern town of Krymsk that claimed 171 lives in 2012.
A man pours water out of a residential home affected by a disastrous flood in the southern town of Krymsk that claimed 171 lives in 2012.

Environmental activists argue that, for Russia, the minuses easily outweigh the pluses. In any case, Kokorin said that the potential benefits of climate change are difficult to harness.

"The heating season is getting shorter, so in theory we can economize on this. But, in order to do that, you need to have a flexible heating system, which is not that simple," he said.

"In the north and northwest regions of Russia, there could be slightly better conditions for agriculture. But you need to be able to manage agriculture correctly in order to make use of this," he added. "This again is not simple."

What does Putin think?

Putin has long been seen as a climate change skeptic. In 2003, he told an international conference that rising temperatures might mean Russians "would spend less on fur coats" and that "grain production will increase, and thank God for that."

Twelve years later, Russian officials broadly acknowledge that climate change is real, that it is happening because of human activity, and that it poses a threat, according to Angelina Davydova, a St. Petersburg journalist specializing in climate change.

"We've already gotten to the stage when no one jokes about this," said Kokorin. "The majority of people, including official people, see that there are substantial changes to the climate, that most of them are negative, and that there are considerably fewer positive effects, and finally that we have to take action."

What has Russia done?

In 2009, Russia approved a national Climate Doctrine, which laid out guidelines for implementing future climate change policy.

In 2013, Putin issued a decree setting the goal of cutting Russia's anthropogenic -- human-caused -- greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to 25 percent below their 1990 level.

In Russia's case, the suitability of using 1990 as a benchmark year is controversial. While many countries' carbon emissions have risen gradually over decades, this was not the case for Russia: 1990 is the year before the Soviet Union fell apart, dealing a massive blow to industry that had the side-effect of vastly reducing the country's carbon footprint. What's more, the Soviet Union was a notoriously bad polluter: By 2012, Russia had only reached 50 percent of 1990 emissions levels.

What can we expect from Russia in Paris?

In March, Russia said that by 2030 it intends to cut emissions to 20-25 percent below 1990 levels.

Environmental groups have criticized that pledge, calling it unambitious and insufficient.

For one thing, it is exactly the same level that Putin decreed as a target for 2020.

In addition, Moscow has indicated it will factor in the benign impact of its huge swath of boreal forestland when it comes to calculating its overall carbon emissions. Russia's forestland absorbs huge amounts of carbon, and, by factoring it in, Moscow effectively grants itself extra carbon emissions.

Finally, Russia's emissions targets for 2020 and 2030 targets are higher than the levels it reached in 2012.

Kokorin said that overall, the proposals that countries have submitted for the Paris conference are "entirely insufficient" for the summit to succeed in its aim of preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

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