In Russia, Too, Capital Is Painting Itself Green

Given its powerful oil oligarchs, it’s easy to assume Russia is the quintessential climate denier. Yet the rise of corporate ESG policies in the country suggests Russian capital wants to greenwash just as much as its Western peers.

Ruslan Edelgeriev, Adviser to the President and Special Presidential Representative on Climate Issues of the Russian Federation, speaks during the COP28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 9, 2023. (Dominika Zarzycka / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Back in November, I listened to an interview with anti-capitalist climate scholar Andreas Malm, covering his massive body of work in great detail. It was very insightful, and I enjoyed a great deal of it — until something caught my attention. While talking about the book he wrote together with the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, Malm expressed regret about not having investigated the Russian case, since “climate denialism is virtually the official line” there. This seems almost self-explanatory, considering Russia’s place in the world’s economy as one of the biggest exporters of oil, gas, and, recently, also coal.

Yet such assumptions only hold true if you haven’t paid much attention to Russian climate policies. In reality, despite orienting themselves toward the European and American far right in many aspects of their ideology, Russian authorities and elites have taken a different approach when it comes to climate change. This approach could be characterized as an opportunistic compliance with international goals on climate action, driven by market imperatives.

Who’s In Charge of Russian Climate Strategy

Long before the introduction of the Paris Agreement and even the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Soviet Union was the home of the leading science on climate change. Soviet climatologist Mikhail Budyko was one of the first to formulate and describe the mechanism of anthropogenic climate change back in the 1970s. The Soviet-American “Working Group 8” research agreement in this field prepared the ground for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — with Budyko and his workshop in the thick of it.

Of course, the state of scientific research is not directly translatable to policy. But if we look at decisions and official statements coming from federal or regional authorities, climate denialism does not set the tone in Russia. Putin has in the past said things that could be considered climate denialist, like a suggestion he made in 2018 that climate change is caused by “cosmic changes, some invisible moves in the galaxy.” But today, he seems to have changed his mind. For better or worse, by the start of the 2020s, Russia was equipped with a whole new set of laws and regulations tackling climate change and climate change adaptation. A goal of decarbonization by 2060 was established at the state level. Businesses also weren’t that far behind — by the start of the war in 2022 it was hard to find a major firm without an ESG (environmental, social, and governance) or climate strategy, and climate and ESG-related jobs were booming.

All of this is coupled with the near absence of climate crisis in public discourse. For those outside of a small and dedicated community of experts and activists, climate change is personified by Greta Thunberg and some kids spilling various substances on different surfaces in European cities: in short, something nonsensical and supposedly distant from ordinary folks. Russia has no massive climate movement, its green parties might as well be nonexistent, and the country’s tiny independent left never really came up with any kind of ecosocialist program or manifesto like the Green New Deal or the Green Industrial Revolution. The introduction of climate science or broader ecology as a school subject has been mulled over and suggested a few times over the past two decades but never came to pass. In wider society, this fuels either indifference or conspiratorial attitudes toward climate change and the green transition.

This means that the entire scope of climate policies in Russia never came about as a result of the pressure from below but was delivered at the request and in accordance with the interests of the capitalist class. But why were big Russian business enterprises interested in climate laws in the first place? A longtime analyst of Russian energy policies, Thane Gustafson, notes in his book Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change that Russian business and political elites have always been heavily oriented toward Europe, sometimes even against their best interest. Trading with Europe, especially in the last fifteen years, meant having your goods classified according to international climate standards, so some kind of climate regulation — and carbon markets — needed to be developed. The pressure was also coming from the government itself as well as Russia’s oil and gas giants, both concerned about the damaging effects of climate change on energy infrastructure and looking to explore new opportunities in the Arctic associated mostly with the Northern Sea Route and large offshore deposits of oil and gas.

Having these objectives in mind, it’s not particularly surprising that Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development was chosen as the government agency in charge of the climate and energy transition (although it raised some eyebrows in the experts’ community back in the day). Famous for their competent technocratic approaches, the officials of the ministry are often branded as “system liberals” in Russian political jargon. While not necessarily sharing the increasingly hawkish outlook of the Russian military-security establishment, they play along with the government as its “fellow travelers.” In general, the outlook of the Ministry of Economic Development is similar to its European and US counterparts and fits the profile of neoliberal and neoclassical economic policies.

This is evident in the regulatory and policy documents they produce. Take, for example, the new Russian climate doctrine signed by Putin last October — a top-level document that should determine the Russian state’s climate policies on all levels, from international to municipal, for the next decades. The document is mainly preoccupied with climate change monitoring capabilities and the introduction of so-called climate projects — which can be described as an analog of carbon offsets. The latter are heavily criticized by climate researchers, who deemed them misleading and ineffective, and ecosocialist thinkers, who see carbon offsets as a carte blanche given to multinationals to not only prolong business as usual but also destroy ecosystems and dispossess indigenous communities.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels are not even mentioned in the doctrine (in contrast to the previous version of the document, released back in 2009). You won’t find anything indicating a planned phaseout of oil, gas, or coal, or any kind of energy transition. The development of renewable energy technologies is discussed just once throughout the doctrine. Russian programs for green technology development are notoriously weak, with less than 1 percent of energy coming from wind and solar power stations. Meager (around $6.5 billion in 2023) investment programs in green energy haven’t changed that. And, with the start of the war, numerous wind and solar projects have been delayed or altogether canceled because of the sanctions and withdrawal of Western contractors.

What Is Technological Neutrality?

So, if fossil fuels and energy transition are not the focus of Russian climate doctrine, what is? First of all, it’s something called the principle of “technological neutrality.” Here, neutrality means that “all available technologies” should be used to curb emissions. These technologies include geothermal, hydro- and nuclear power plants (nuclear is a traditionally strong sector in Russia) but also measures aimed at carbon capture and sequestration rather than emission reduction. Technological neutrality equates the former and the latter in the fight against climate change.

“Increasing the ecosystem’s absorbing capacity” has long been a fixation of Russian climate policy. Starting with the idea to recalculate the absorbing capacity of Russia’s forests (covering roughly half of the country’s territory) half a decade ago, now it transformed into the grand scheme of establishing a network of so-called carbon polygons, i.e. test grounds where carbon dioxide emissions and accumulation are scientifically monitored, all over the country (seventeen at the moment, but there are plans for more). These climate projects allow such Russian firms as Sibur and Rosneft — both among the largest fossil fuel companies — to establish partnerships with universities and scientific institutions and study the influence of such factors as the amount of light, type and quality of the soils, plants’ age, etc. on ecosystems’ absorbing capacity. The end goal is the formation of a carbon market that would allow these companies to achieve “carbon neutrality” and trade carbon units at home and abroad with their less-fortunate counterparts who can’t afford a carbon polygon of their own.

Another means that the Russian state and businesses use to prop up decarbonization programs and increase their profitability is to locate them in special economic zones (SEZ). Also under the purview of the Ministry of Economic Development, SEZs have become a kind of silver bullet for every problem the state faces. Urgently ramping up the production of drones? Open multiple factories in SEZs. Medical technologies lagging behind? SEZ. Businesses fleeing heavily bombed near-border region? You got it, create an SEZ there. It’s only logical that the task of decarbonization is also being outsourced to SEZs: already four economic zones have announced their goal to reach carbon neutrality, while those lagging behind offer themselves as platforms for development of green technologies. Some of the right-wing libertarian visionaries, who were the inspiration behind SEZs, might find this approach praiseworthy.

Perhaps the culmination of the “climate project” rush is another SEZ resident, the famous Pleistocene Park — an ambitious geoengineering experiment in Yakutia started by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov almost thirty years ago to test a theory that by bringing large herbivores (and predators) to the tundra it can be transformed into the previously existing grassland ecosystem of mammoth steppe. According to Zimov, this should bind methane stored in permafrost and also significantly increase the current absorbing capacity of the vast tundra area. From a small project relying on crowdfunding, Pleistocene Park developed into a participant in the Arctic Zone, the biggest economic zone in the world, and the showcase of the Russian climate program. It was widely advertised at Russia’s pavilion at the recent COP28 summit in Dubai, with a special mention in the official address by the Adviser to the President on Climate Change, Ruslan Edelgeriev.

Even more interesting is the fact that Russian coal tycoon Andrey Melnichenko, who fell out of favor with the Kremlin after expressing his mild opposition to the war against Ukraine and was briefly threatened with the nationalization of some of his assets, now became the major sponsor of Pleistocene Park and the ambassador for Russian climate doctrine abroad. In a long read he authored ahead of the summit, Melnichenko reaffirmed the key postulate of the country’s climate program: “Each carbon molecule is the same” — meaning, it makes no sense to focus on industrial and mining operations when cutting emissions. After all, even if Melnichenko may feel distaste or even genuine concern toward civilian suffering in Ukraine, Russian climate policy fully aligns with his business interests. Russian authorities, in turn, see the well-connected tycoon as the perfect man for the job of piecing back together their severed ties with their former European and American business partners.

Green Diplomacy

Overall, Russia was a good fit at COP28, with the summit’s characteristic backdoor oil deals and intense lobbying from oil-rich nations and fossil-fuel companies. Almost symbolically, the children of Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov made their first international public appearance in Dubai, as a part of Russia’s team. They even reached out to the Palestinian delegation, emphasizing the urgency of the social and humanitarian side of climate programs.

This represents the outward side of Russian climate policy, something climate journalist Angelina Davydova labels “green diplomacy.” Its twofold goal is to restore Russia’s legitimacy at the international level and to appeal to Global South countries. The message of “establishing one’s sovereignty” proves quite popular, especially among African countries that suffered European colonialism. Russia found a way to adapt this message to climate policy, too — by emphasizing that every country should reach the goals of the Paris Agreement in its own way and never at the expense of economic growth and prosperity. Coupled with the criticism of such policies as CBAM (Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism), drawn up by the EU to protect its greening industry from its not-so-green foreign competitors, and offers of ambitious food security and energy projects (for example, nuclear) at low prices, this approach certainly won Russia some points among Global South governments.

As for Russia’s legitimacy at the broader international level, it constantly reminds its former partners in the West that the common goal of combating climate change is something that could be achieved only if at least some of the sanctions are canceled and ties restored. So far, they are making this case with little to no effect. But the Russian government believes that time is on its side on this question, just as with the war against Ukraine.

. . . and Greener Markets

Judging by the weak development of renewables in Russia, one could easily conclude that the country’s ruling classes have given up completely on the energy transition race. But that’s not the case, either. They just chose a peculiar niche in it, or, rather, several particular niches. The first of these is the mining and production of certain so-called green metals — nickel, copper, and aluminum. It’s a safe bet, considering that Russian companies already control significant parts of the world market for these metals. Now, state corporation Rosatom in partnership with Nornickel is also starting to develop the biggest lithium deposit in the country, on the lands that native people of the Kola Peninsula, the Saami, use for reindeer herding. It would take until 2028 to open the mine, so Rosatom also secured a partnership with Bolivian firm YLB to start the production of lithium carbonate in Bolivia. Meanwhile, smaller lithium deposits in two other Russian regions will be mined by another Russian state corporation, Rostech. This would allow Russia to control a significant part of the initial links in the global production chains for green products.

Another, slightly riskier step is the production and export of blue (i.e. produced from gas) hydrogen. Since Russia already has most of the necessary infrastructure for that, Russian companies such as Novatek rush to secure contracts with potential buyers — some of them in Europe. Finally, perhaps, Russia’s biggest hope is nuclear power. Rosatom is involved in the building of a third of all nuclear plants currently under construction in the world, including projects in Egypt, Turkey, Burkina Faso, and Bangladesh. It has the whole production chain under control and has recently reported about such technological breakthroughs as the development of MOX fuel.

These steps, albeit important, are economically supplementary. The general strategy of the Russian ruling class seems to be betting on the fossil fuel status quo to remain — because no one runs from the reliably profitable business to the less profitable and riskier one (unless one has an industrial capacity comparable to China).

Does Russia Care About Climate Change?

It may seem that by more or less sabotaging decarbonization, the Russian government is confirming its denialist attitude toward climate change. But that’s not true — in fact, authorities are very concerned. The key to their concern, however, is their choice of solutions. Russian climatologists consistently produce top-notch, detailed scientific reports on the consequences of climate change for the country. These have reached some ears in both the Kremlin and big companies, especially the ones operating in or near the Arctic. Such climate-related disasters as a series of megafires in Yakutia, a killer heat wave in Moscow in 2010, and a massive oil spill in Norilsk in 2020 caused by both the melting of the permafrost and infrastructure’s decay also didn’t go unnoticed. Agricultural regions in southern Russia are already experiencing an acute water crisis that will only grow worse — perhaps threatening not only Russian food exports but also its own food security, according to the estimates of Russian climatologists and economists. The ability to provide “independent” climate monitoring and evaluation is one of the objectives of the country’s climate doctrine that rhymes with Russia’s growing focus on sovereignty.

In other words, the Russian government is well-informed of the scope and the speed of the crisis faced. Its response? Focus on adaptation measures, retreat where adaptation is no longer possible or economically viable, secure borders in anticipation of further conflicts and refugee crises, and make use of the few opportunities that present themselves (opening of the Northern Sea Route, a longer period of vegetation in Central Russia, the lesser need for fuel for heating). In other words, this is a “climate-realist” approach eerily similar to the pictures of an increasingly fragmented and ultraviolent world that could be found in such climate-fiction classics as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or Peter Watts’s Rifters trilogy.

Russian authorities are already anticipating the upcoming scramble for the Arctic. The securitization of the Northern Sea Route, for which Rosatom is responsible as the sole provider of nuclear icebreakers, is the main objective so far — albeit not the only one. The region’s vast resources — especially offshore — are still relatively untapped, but the race for their development has already begun. This January, Norway became the first nation to allow deep-sea mining, justifying it partly by the opportunity to break up the dependence on China’s and Russia’s green metals. Russia controls 53 percent of the Arctic coastline, which gives the country a key advantage over its European and North American competitors. The already ongoing remilitarization of the region has only intensified after Finland and Sweden announced they are joining NATO.

The focus on security is also present in Russia’s new climate doctrine, where climate change is described as “one of the key long-term security factors” and “a priority for foreign and domestic policies.” Such a security-centered perspective is, evidently, familiar to anyone who closely follows the development of the green industry and energy policies in the Global North. Delinking and onshoring the production of the key metals, securing (often military) supply chains and key trade routes that are achieved through alignment of state and corporate interests and actions — all these developments fall under what political scientist Thea Riofrancos calls the “security-sustainability nexus.” Perhaps, Russia was one of the pioneers of this approach, with state and business interests interlinking ever more closely since the second half of the 2000s.

What About the Left?

With 4.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, Russia currently is the fourth-biggest emitter globally. The country is one of the biggest players in fossil fuel markets. Its economy heavily relies on oil, gas, and coal exports to function. Climate change already seriously alters the lives of the country’s population — from agricultural workers to big-city residents, from indigenous people of the North, Siberia, and Caucasus to the rapidly growing coastal communities on the Black Sea shore. These changes have various impacts, from job security to health concerns to outright natural disasters and the dismantling of habitual ways of life.

Still, the Russian left, when it speaks about the climate crisis at all, usually does it in the most abstract terms, rarely tying region- and country-specific problems to a wider discourse on the global climate crisis. The fact of climate change as a global emergency is almost never brought up in environmental protests, which are still quite frequent in Russia; the talk about the ultrarich ruining the planet rarely goes beyond huge yachts and private jets — objects of luxury consumption that are always somewhere far away and almost dreamlike. It’s as if the crisis is always just around the corner — making it more like a monster lurking behind the bed than something present or real.

Russia’s ruling classes set their climate goals and objectives long ago and are well on their way to implementing them. These objectives promote their key interests — hold onto fossil fuel rents as long as possible, secure supply chains and competitiveness of the products, and keep investment where it brings reliable profits. Can the Russian left offer an alternative that brings people, equality, the planet, and solidarity with the most vulnerable at the center of the climate strategy? Today, it’s an open question — and we’re already running out of time to come up with a satisfactory answer.