Concerns of Ethics and Justice in Russian Climate Politics.

Katia Vladimirova
LUISS Guido Carli, Rome

This report responds to the research questions of the Project On Deepening National Responses to Climate Change On The Basis of Ethics and Justice, a joint project of the University of Auckland, School of Architecture and Planning and Widener University, School of Law, Environmental Law Center. The research questions and responses are as follows:
1. Identify the most recent national commitment on reducing ghg emissions (INDCs) made by the country and the date on which it was made.


In April 2015, eight months ahead of Conference of Parties in Paris, Russian Federation submitted a Climate Action Plan and its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC. Russia has committed to “limiting anthropogenic greenhouse gases in Russia to 70-75% of 1990 levels by the year 2030 […], subject to the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of forests.

An NGO Climate Action Tracker has identified this level of ambition and commitment as “inadequate” (Climate Action Tracker 2015).


2. Given that any national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on an atmospheric ghg concentration that will avoid dangerous climate change, to what extent has the nation expressly identified an atmospheric ghg level target goal or a warming limit that its INDC is designed to achieve and is it possible to quantitatively examine how the ghg emission target links quantitatively to an atmospheric ghg concentration or carbon budget?


INDC of the Russian Federation, “Reducing GHG emissions by 25-30% from 1990 levels by 2030 will allow the Russian Federation to step on the path of low-carbon development compatible with the long-term objective of the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius.”


3. Given that any national ghg emissions reduction target is implicitly a position on what ethics, justice and equity requires of it, to what extent has the nation expressly identified the justice or equity basis that it has considered in determining a ghg emissions reduction target percentage level?


Russia, one of the top CO2 emitters and the largest country in the world, has been engaged in climate politics for over thirty years. In June 1992, Russia was among the first countries to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2004 it was Russia’s decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol which saved the UNFCCC-based climate regime from collapsing after the United States withdrew its support in 2001. During the first period of the Kyoto Protocol (2008–2012) Russia committed to keep its CO2 emissions at a level not exceeding the levels of 1990 – but its actual emissions were almost 30% lower than in 1990.


From a certain perspective, Russia’s role in global climate politics might appear as positive. However, these achievements are rather illusory and, placed in a historical context, do not stand up to scrutiny. Following perestroika and other events, in December 1991 the Soviet Union broke down into 15 independent states. The Russian Federation as a country, which took commitments under the UNFCCC at a meeting in Rio in June 1992, was only six months old, in a rapidly deteriorating state threatening its very existence. Economic collapse triggered by political crisis escalated exponentially. During the 1990s, Russia’s economy went into deep recession, and CO2 emissions shrank for reasons completely unrelated to climate change by 40% (Kokorin, 2013, p5).


For more than a decade, the country was in a state of severe social crisis, including unprecedented unemployment, demographic recession, healthcare deterioration, crime rate increase, and significant loss of human capital. In such conditions, it was no surprise that the dangers of global warming did not make it to the top of the country’s political agenda. It is safe to say that there was no such thing as a ‘national debate’ on global warming and climate change in Russia in the 1990s. Actions taken by the country in an international arena during those years reflected rather geopolitical and international image concerns of the ruling political elites than a position that emerged out of a national debate.


Influenced by internal factors, Russia’s position in international climate negotiations in the 1990s was ‘defensive and almost unnoticed’ (Korppoo et al, 2006). The main concern expressed by the country’s representatives regarding the Framework Convention was related to how the new commitments would affect the country’s energy export revenues (Afionis and Chatzopoulus, 2010). On this matter, Russia repeatedly sided with OPEC countries to question existing commitments as inadequate, stressing the role of scientific uncertainty (Oberthuer, 1996). Russia also argued in favour of low commitments for the economies in transition (like itself and some former USSR members) and for the inclusion of forests as carbon sinks in the regime (Afionis and Chatzopoulus, 2010).
Due to internal uncertainty and crisis, Russia agreed to reduction levels under the Kyoto Protocol that left plenty of room for economic recovery after the recession. A steep decline in GDP meant, however, that Russia obtained a significant amount of ‘extra’ quotas (also called ‘hot air’) that could have been traded under the Kyoto framework. This contributed to the formation of a certain way of thinking among Russia’s political elites, known as the ‘Kyoto mentality’. In essence this approach meant that Russia, due to its large territory, forests, and CO2 absorption capacity, was some kind of unique climate ‘donor’ saving the planet and that this position entitled the country to special treatment by other developed states (Kokorin, 2012).


While during official international meetings Russia mentioned the role of justice concerns in climate politics (among the most recent – UNFCCC 2014), the ‘Kyoto mentality’ persisted way into the first decade of the 21st century. Russia’s ethical stand was shaped by its national interest (which included profits from oil and gas exports) and by the fact that its rapid GDP decline had already contributed greatly to the common effort to reduce overall emissions. Russia participated in international cooperation on climate change as long as it provided opportunities for potential gains, economic or geopolitical (Kokorin, 2012).


Geopolitics and international image considerations continued to dominate Russia’s position regarding climate change in the 2000s. After the United States withdrew its support for the Kyoto Protocol it was critical that Russia joined the treaty to guarantee participation of countries accounting for more than 55% of global CO2 emissions. It is commonly agreed that Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was a symbolic gesture (as it required no substantial actions from the country) made in exchange for a promise from the EU to support Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (Korppo et al, 2006).


With the changing international situation and growth of China and India, the paradigm of international climate politics started to shift in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. From 2007, Russia repeatedly underlined that the old Kyoto division as an ethical foundation for national commitments made less and less sense in the emerging global context (Kokorin, 2012, p6). In Copenhagen in 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russia was ready to sign a legally binding climate treaty (RIA Novosti, 2009). However, it is noted that each country’s reduction targets can only be defined by the country itself on a voluntary basis.


An important step at the national level was taken by Russia in 2009 when the government passed the Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation. Even though the document was vague about specific measures, it was a significant milestone on the way to recognizing climate change as a problem. The Doctrine reaffirmed its commitment under the UNFCCC to the principle of common but differentiated responsibility of countries according to their levels of socio-economic development (Climate Doctrine, 2009). In 2011, the government passed a more detailed plan of implementation of the Climate Doctrine. The plan contained no mention of climate justice concerns (Plan of Implementation, 2011); however, the issues of potential support from Russia to more vulnerable states were raised during the preparatory process – but did not make it to the final text (Kokorin, 2012).



In March 2015, Russia was among the first states to submit its intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to reduce CO2 emissions, which are outlined in the beginning of this paper. Reduction of CO2 emissions to the 70-75% of the 1990 levels may seem impressive. The pledge, however, is contingent on the outcomes of Paris climate talks and commitments of other key emitters. Moreover, it is subject to the maximum possible account of absorbing capacity of Russia’s vast boreal forests (accounting for almost 20% of its emissions). Accounting forests as carbon sinks obscures a very important fact. According to Russia’s special representative on climate change Alexander Bedritsky, there is no intention to stabilize or limit Russia’s energy consumption before 2030 (Kremlin, 2014).


If during the 1990s there were almost no discussions about climate change and global warming at all, the situation started to change in the early 2000s. An active role in initiating a national debate was played by NGOs, especially WWF and Greenpeace. However, it soon became clear that only arguments framed in a certain way make it to decision-makers (Kokorin, 2014). Only actions inside the country were supported, mostly in conservation and adaptation (not mitigation).


The motivation for this support was drawn from inside the country, from its ‘national interest’, and not from a sense of international obligation and cooperation. In order to achieve any action NGOs had to speak to the government and business in the language of cost and benefit and occasionally with references to the country’s natural and cultural heritage. This influenced the national debate and shifted it away from international justice concerns towards Russian national interest.


At the heart of Russia’s national and international climate positions there is a failure to recognize climate change as a threat to Russia’s national interests (e.g. Korppoo and Moe, 2007). Many still do not consider climate change as a serious environmental problem. This view is reinforced by widespread climate scepticism among Russian scientists (e.g. Kotov, 2004; Izrael, 2005, 2007). The Russian Academy of Sciences, the most authoritative scientific institution, is known for its sceptical views of climate change threat (Prokofiev, 2011), even though many Russian climate scientists took an active part in the work of IPCC and share the views of global science.


Historically, the dominant view in Russia was of man as a ruler of nature (Korppoo and Moe, 2007). This view was not accidental but instrumental in overcoming hardships of nature in spreading human influence throughout the vast territory of the Soviet Union (building roads and railroads through Siberia to the Far East, exploring and extracting natural resources in areas with harsh natural conditions, etc.). Deeply embedded in the Russian mentality, this view contrasts strongly with the foundations for global action on climate change. The most progressive part of Russian society, including environmental NGOs, has been trying to change this view but an underlying shift in values takes time to happen.

[a]Methodological challenge of this study


At this point it is important to note that there are at least two methodological challenges in assessing Russia’s climate change politics and national debate.
First, in answering the first question it is important to distinguish between two ways a nation can ‘consider’ ethical obligations in deciding how it should respond to climate change. There are declarative statements and there are actual discussions and debates that lay a foundation for the formulation of policies. Concerns of justice and the responsibility of developed states to help vulnerable members of the global community are expressed primarily in international statements of Russia’s officials but these statements are declarative in nature.


The other difficulty has to do with the angle of this study and its focus on specific ethical concerns. It is relatively easy to find proof when some concerns are represented in a debate. But it becomes much more difficult to prove that these concerns are absent from or have no weight in a discussion and to avoid ‘wishful thinking’, especially when the concerns in question are universal.

Russia’s national debate about climate change, in its rudimentary state, and the position of the government, are predominantly about the economic interests of the country. They place no real weight on concerns of international intra- and intergenerational climate justice in discussing the country’s actions on climate change. These concerns get mentioned from time to time, in preambles of some documents, in some public speeches, but this lip service does not mean that these concerns are actually considered as a powerful factor in determining the country’s position. No document or government official representing the national position would state explicitly that justice concerns are not accounted for – they simply would not be discussed or only mentioned superficially. Therefore, the view presented in this study relies primarily on the general sense given by the literature and key legal documents, as well as by discussions with some Russian climate change experts conducted by


4. To what extent, if any, has the national debate about the nation’s INDC considered or acknowledged that the nation not only has economic interests in setting its ghg target but also ethical obligations to those who are most vulnerable to climate change?


National interest, primarily its economic dimension, is at the heart of Russia’s position on climate change in international negotiations. The concept of climate justice is underdeveloped and rarely applied. Despite some efforts from academia to clarify the ethical dimension of national responsibility (e.g., Prokofiev, 2011), climate justice principles have received little attention both from the government and from the public.
According to experts, national and international NGOs in Russia also prefer to take a different stand, tailored to Russian reality, when they try to convince governments to act on climate change (Kokorin, 2014). The arguments that get through and make at least some difference are those which emphasize Russia’s national interest, including population health, loss of natural resources, and environmental degradation. Appeals to international obligations, to issues of international intra- and intergenerational justice, especially framed in monetary terms, have no success in triggering action or even response from the Russian government.
Climate justice was not mentioned in Russia’s Climate Doctrine (2009) or in the following Plan of Implementation of Climate Doctrine until 2020 (2011).


5. To what extent have NGOs or other major participants engaged in climate change policy formation at the national level examined the national INDC from an ethics, justice, or equity perspective?


As explained in an answer to question 4, Russian NGOs engaged in climate politics tend to focus on arguments, which resonate most strongly with the dominant political view of the issue (focused on national interest).


6. To what extent has the national media covered issues concerning the national INDC with respect to ethical, justice, and equity issues?


In general, media coverage of climate change politics in Russia is poor. Most communications are based on information provided directly by the government and report an official position rather than offer in-depth ethical investigation of the issue.


7. Before any nation may adopt an INDC or climate policy it often has to satisfy national economic interests. Yet many nations fail to disclose the national economic interests that have actually affected the lack of aggressiveness of the national INDC when commitments are made under the UNFCCC. Given this, what is known about the actual basis for the aggressiveness of the national INDC?’


Economic interests and, more specifically, energy are central to Russia’s position on climate change. As some have labeled the level of its INDC ambition “weak” (CarbonBrief 2015), economic interests behind the pledge are rather transparent. After the devastating economic collapse of the 1990s and slow recovery of the early 2000s, Russia prioritizes economic growth (including the development of its energy systems) over any climate commitments. It will play along the demands of climate regime as long as it allows Russia to continue development in line with the state’s agenda to protect and advance its national interest.


8. What formal mechanisms are available in the nation for citizens, NGOs and other interested organizations to question/contest the nation’s ethical position on climate change?


Russian governmental officials meet occasionally with representatives of the academic community and non-governmental organizations but these meetings are almost entirely aimed at discussing environmental issues inside the country (e.g. Kremlin, 2011). During international negotiations NGOs and other interested organizations normally have access to Russia’s official delegation and can through personal networking lobby certain issues. There is also an avenue to bring certain questions to the media but, like other parts of Russian society, the media has little interest in covering climate change in general and international climate justice concerns in particular.


9. Are you aware of any regional, state, provincial, or local governments in your country that has acknowledged ethical responsibility for climate change? If so, what have they said?


Local governments in some regions (e.g., Primorsky Krai) tend to be more inclined to take part in climate change-related joint implementation projects but this is done for pragmatic reasons rather than ethical ones.


10. Has your national government taken any position on or otherwise encouraged individuals, businesses, organizations, subnational governments, or other entities that they have an ethical duty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?


No, Russia’s government took no such explicit measures.


11. What recommendations would you make to get the nation or civil society in the country to take ethics and justice issues seriously in climate change policy formulation?


Climate change debate and understanding in Russia are framed in terms different than in most other developed states. A sense of the country’s uniqueness and its special position as a climate donor contribute to a common vision of its responsibilities as minimal. The debate is not shaped in terms such as ‘responsibility to the planet’ but rather ‘responsibility to other members of the global community’. At the heart of Russia’s international and national climate politics there are geopolitical and economic interests which are from time to time covered with fig leaves of justice concerns required by international diplomatic protocol.


Transforming this debate to bring it more in line with international justice concerns would take many years and might not be sufficient in the end. Russia’s position is a reflection of the dominant mentality. Russians are protective of their wealth accumulated the hard way following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Any conversations about giving away this hard-earned wealth do not look appealing either to the citizens or to the government that they elect. But most importantly, this position is supported and reinforced by dominant climate scepticism widely spread among Russia’s scientific community. Even if the IPCC is constituted of international scientists and is aimed to represent their consensual agreement, the opinion of national climate scientists still attracts more interest and the trust of the general Russian public than the conclusions of the IPCC. The Russian climate scientists are active to promote IPCC views in the country but they do not use ethical argumentation at all and focus on the positive and negative climate change effects in Russia.


Russia’s failure at all levels to recognize climate change as a threat to Russia itself, in my view, is the key obstacle in the way of integrating ethical concerns into its national and international climate policies. Moral obligations only make sense if the understanding of why they feature is shared. As long as Russia does not share the view that climate change is an issue of global importance, relevant to all countries, and that Russia itself is an integral part of the global community, climate justice concerns may not make much difference in formulating it position.


12. To what extent, if at all, has the nation acknowledged that nations emitting ghg above their fair share of safe global emissions have a responsibility to fund reasonable adaptation measures or unavoidable losses and damages in poor developing countries?


Russia acknowledged the role of most developed states in helping more vulnerable countries to combat climate change in many statements made at UNFCCC meetings. However, its initial position as an economy in transition and not a donor country (Annex II UNFCCC) shaped Russia’s approach to climate aid as an entirely voluntary action. Russia has repeatedly expressed support to its immediate neighbours from the Commonwealth of Independent States, as well as some other developing nations, like Cuba and Angola, which historically have been of geopolitical interest to Russia. During the COP19 in Warsaw in 2013 when a discussion about the Loss and Damage Mechanism took place, the Russian team of negotiators argued that there was no need of a separate mechanism for this matter and that efforts should instead be focused on strengthening the capacity of developing countries by improving the efficiency of the adaptation, technology, and financing mechanisms.



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