Russia ratifies Paris climate accord - but targets are 'critically insufficient'

Alec Luhn, Moscow  23 September 2019 •

Russia has ratified the Paris climate agreement, marking a shift in rhetoric for the world's fourth largest greenhouse polluter even though its pledged targets are so low it can still increase emissions. 

PM Dmitry Medvedev told ministers on Monday he had signed a government order to ratify the 2015 accord, arguing that climate change could endanger key sectors like agriculture as well as the “safety of people living in areas with permafrost,” which covers two-thirds of the country.

As part of a national programme to reduce hazardous pollutants and restore forests, Moscow would now have to take into account the international goals of limiting greenhouse gases, he said. 

Under the Paris agreement, which allowed countries to set their own targets, Russia pledged to reduce emissions to 25 to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. 

But this is little more than a sleight of hand, since Russian industry today is still running at a far slower clip than it was before the collapse of the Soviet command economy. As of 2017, Russia's emissions were 32 per cent lower than in 1990. Thus it can actually pollute more and still meet its current Paris agreement goals. 

The Climate Action Tracker NGO has included Russia among the five countries whose commitments are “critically insufficient” to hold warming within the 2 degrees Celsius that, according to studies, will set off a “new climate regime” in many regions of the world. 

As the second-largest oil exporter, Russia contributes to the burning of greenhouse gases around the world and is continuing to develop its oil, gas and coal industries. 

At the same time, it is also the world's top exporter of wheat and nuclear technology. The country is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the planet and has suffered climate-related catastrophes this year like flooding in the Irkutsk region and record-breaking wildfires across Siberia

In a speech in July, president Vladimir Putin said Russia is “being hit the hardest” by climate change, but argued that new technologies like nuclear fusion were the solution, rather than an "absolutist, blind faith" in sustainable energy. 

He claimed that wind turbines killed birds and “cause worms to come out of the soil,” even though fossil fuel power plants are far more harmful to wildlife. 

Mr Putin has denied that global warming is caused by humans, a position that remains unchanged despite the ratification, his spokesman told Bloomberg.

Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund welcomed the decision on the Paris accord, albeit with reservations about the targets.

“Against the background of these statements is a different reality, and Russia should take real, visible measures (to reduce emissions),” said Vasily Yablokov of Greenpeace. “Because while there is accounting and figures, there are no real actions to develop a low-carbon economy.”

At a discussion of the budget with Mr Putin on Monday, Mr Medvedev said financing for environmental programmes would increase but did not mention the Paris agreement.

On Thursday, the Italian company Enel broke ground on Russia's biggest wind power park near the Arctic port of Murmansk, which is planned to include 57 wind turbines by 2021. But the country is still well behind a 2009 energy strategy goal to generate 4.5 per cent of power from alternative energy by 2020. 

Mr Putin has reportedly been lobbied by his European counterparts to finally ratify the accord, and he may be afraid of losing out on trade with major partners like Germany, who are implementing stricter standards.

The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs backtracked on its opposition to the climate agreement in January, citing fear of sanctions against Russian companies.  

The decision to ratify the Paris accord via a government order rather than a parliamentary vote may reflect opposition to such environmental measures among many officials. 

Russia faces tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure damage from thawing permafrost soil as well as the potential release of ancient diseases and nuclear weapons testing fallout. 

“Russia is suffering palpable harm from climate change, and it's in the interests of Russian government to reduce this effect,” Mr Yablokov said. “And without action by Russia it will be impossible to limit warming worldwide.”


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I think the point most people miss when talking about climate change, global warming, or whatever they want to call it, is that in the past, when the Earth was completely ice free and the dinosaurs were happy, the warmer Earth of that time took millions of years to get that way. 

Other geological history tells us that the Earth has been completely frozen over at different times.  Again, the climate change took millions of years to happen and life adjusted, or became extinct. 

What’s happing today is not normal.  We haven’t been struck by an object from space.  We don’t see the world-wide volcano eruptions of the past that snuffed out most of Earth’s life several times.  What we do see is an Earth warming faster than any other time in its long history.  What has changed? 

Humans are using the Earth’s stored carbon.  We have released back into the atmosphere in the last 200 years all the carbon that Earth scrubbed out of the atmosphere over 500 million years.  Those trillions-trillions-trillions tons of carbon are now in our oceans and atmosphere and it’s going to take a long time for the Earth to remove that carbon and lock it back up in the ground, (about 500 million years). 

The Earth is a big place.  The sky looks big and endless to us here on the surface, but it’s not.  You’re closer to outer space than your neighborhood Wal-Mart store.  The atmosphere is just a thin layer of gases.  We’re lucky we have our oceans, because that’s where most of the carbon is going.  If we didn’t have any oceans, we would have long past the point of no return.  Imaging Venus. 

A complete end to releasing carbon is not going to change anything now.  We have already changed the chemical balance of our world.  We can stop using carbon and invent our way out of too much of it in the environment, but to simply ignore the problem and say it doesn’t exist is what people do because that’s easy.   

Agree, Max.  Good perspective. The longer we as a country wait to take substantive actions, the fewer and less appealing the options become.  Waiting past 2020 to take action is not an option.  People, and politicians, who ignore the problem will be held to account by future generations...and history.

Some time ago, in another thread on this site, I posted an article written by Burt Richter, Nobel Laureate from Stanford University.  The gist of his article is that it is clear that climate is changing, and the Earth is warming.  His problem, as a scientist, was that both sides interpreted the data to suit their beliefs.  Make no mistake, he certainly was not a climate denier (Burt passed away recently), but just that the science behind the debate was overly hyped, on both sides.  He specifically doubted the "hockey stick" analysis.

This is not too dissimilar to the recent medical publication about eating red meat.  The prior studies had "inferred" that red meat was the cause of many health problems because it has high fat, etc.  My point is that anyone ... anyone who says X will happen if the world doesn't do Y by Z date is engaging in dramatics.  Does the world need to start reducing green house gases? - OF COURSE.  Is the US already doing that? - OF COURSE.  Does the US need to do more? - OF COURSE.  If China and India (and Russia) don't get on board and start reducing their own green house gases, will the Earth be in big trouble regardless of what the US does or doesn't do? - OF COURSE.

The US can only be responsible for what it does or doesn't do.  But anyone who suggests that the US alone can fix this problem is incorrect.  Europe has already moved out aggressively on the issue.  China is moving towards stopping their own GROWTH in GHG.  But China is also still building new coal-fired power plants, and there are still squillions of people in China looking to buy their first car.  

This is an enormous problem, surely larger than any the mankind has tried to tackle.  I wish people wouldn't try and simplify is so much by saying "if the US doesn't do X, then we are doomed."  Sorry - the US can only do its part.  We may be doomed anyway.  But it is highly unlikely that we are doomed by 2020.

The US is not behind on reasoned reactions to a warming climate, we are going backward.  Although the extent of the coming catastrophe is debatable, the lack of any coherent action to this point is totally unacceptable.

The Trump administration is going backward on policy, but actual emissions continue to decline, and will continue to decline, although not as fast as desired.

As I said above, the lack of universal action, including by China and India, are the huge outliers in the world response.

Although states and industries have taken steps to slow the growth of GHG emissions, emissions increased in 2018.  Without governmental intervention there will be no meaningful reduction.

The excuse to do nothing because others are doing nothing or less than they should creates a self fulfilling prophecy that will ensure a much worse outcome. In addition to our efforts as the number two emitter of GHG, the US must do its part while leading a global effort to pressure other countries to do theirs'.  Up to and including sanctions.  Of course that only works with a US administration that has the trust and cooperation of the wider global community.  The US needs to set the example and assist other countries where it can do so.

We like to point our fingers at China and India but if we do the math on green house gases released per person, the USA is still on top.  When we tell a poor farmer in India that he's causing most of the problems concerning GHG's and he lives in a hut and rides a bicycle, we're not being honest with ourselves.

Good point, Max.  Another issue that we rarely get to is the economic opportunities that exists in an energy transition model.  At a time when traditional manufacturing jobs are shrinking and workers are in need of alternate career paths, there are many areas of a green economy that could fill the need.  It seems to have taken way too long for W Virginia to realize the opportunity of the Marcellus Shale for revitalizing coal country.  Now I read articles about the steam crackers and other investments created by natural gas and NGLs  EVs of all types require manufacturing and infrastructure investments.  PV, Storage and Wind are growing business segments and employment engines that will create ancillary opportunities in growing and making the grid smarter.  The government could do a lot to incentivize these opportunities and support a more long term viability for our economy.  And workforce.

Looking like California is shutting down power due to fire dangers.  Not getting on the political band wagon here but it looks like residential natural gas power generators would be a good idea to me.

Agree, Greg.  Where residential natural gas service is available, gas powered generators are the way to go.  Superior to PV+Storage in a number of ways.  IMO natural gas will be the "fall back" energy source for decades.  Renewable energy generation may become the "base load" electric generation source for much of the country in a couple of decades but natural gas plants will supply "peaker" generation.  So for residential or utility generation back up natural gas will be the source.  This would be a much easier position to support publicly and politically if the industry would make a greater and more comprehensive commitment to limit fugitive emissions.

As a former resident of the SF Bay Area, I can tell you that the upcoming power outages planned due to fire risks are a huge problem, not just for homeowners by for companies.  Extremely disruptive.  I read online in the SF Chronicle today that PG&E says some of the power outages may be for as much as a week.  I can see the power generator business really taking off in CA, for both homeowners and businesses.  If they could use NG as the fuel, that would be a huge cost savings.  Seems like there wold be some logistics issues in setting those up, and also risks since CA also is prime earthquake territory.

Steve, are existing residential natural gas distribution systems common in that part of California?


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