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How Russia Learned To Love Global Warming

Everyone focuses on China, but Russia might be an even bigger enigma when it comes to global climate talks. The country is still, let's not forget, the world's third-larger emitter of greenhouse gases, and, from a purely selfish perspective, wouldn't appear to have much interest in phasing out fossil fuels. Not only does Russia's economy rise and fall with the fortunes of the oil and gas industry, but, as Peter Savodnik reported in an eye-opening piece for The National last month, many Russia leaders are actually excited about a warmer world where Siberia's thawed out, St. Petersburg's more livable, and state-owned mining companies can drill like crazy in the ice-free Arctic:

It might seem impolitic to embrace what many regard as a looming global catastrophe. But this has not stopped the Russians. In September 2003, none other than Vladimir Putin signalled his approval, noting that global warming would help Russians "save on fur coats and other warm things". More recently, Rinat Gizatullin, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Ministry, told the BBC: "We are not panicking. Global warming is not as catastrophic for us as it might be for some other countries. If anything, we'll be even better off. As the climate warms, more of Russia's territory will be freed up for agriculture and industry."

Earlier this year, Alexander Bedritsky, head of Russia's state weather centre, issued a public statement noting that "the heating season will be reduced, and this is a positive factor for us as it will allow us to economise on fuel". The weather centre estimated that Russians could save as much as 10 per cent on heating bills by 2050. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist Duma deputy who is widely believed to be close to the Kremlin and who speaks for millions of like-minded Russians, has publicly pined for the day when global warming takes its toll on the West, gloating that London will be submerged by the Thames and "Britain will have to give freedom to Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland". ...

Enthusiasm for global warming in Russia, if that's the right way to put it, goes beyond simple household concerns or national economic interests. For the Russians, who regard the Arctic as essentially their rightful territory, shrinking ice floes will ease access to the bounty of natural resources around the polar ice cap, including large reserves of oil, gas, gold, diamonds, nickel and tungsten.

This doesn't sound like a country ready to clasp hands, sing Kumbaya, and ink a treaty to avert disruptive changes to the planet. And, indeed, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has bragged that his country plans to increase emissions 30 percent by 2020. Now, thanks to the collapse of Soviet-era heavy industry, that goal would still put Russia's emissions 10 to 15 percent below 1990 levels, roughly the (weak) target other industrialized countries are shooting for. But Russia's economy is also grotesquely energy-inefficient and ought to be trying to clean up, not continue to spew recklessly. So is there anything that can convince Putin and Medvedev to shift course? In The New York Times today, Tom Zeller serves up some optimism:

"Russia has so much in terms of oil and gas resources, it's hard to focus on the renewables," said Isabel Murray, the Russia program manager for the Office of Global Energy Dialogue at the International Energy Agency in Paris.

But that, Ms. Murray and other experts say, is slowly starting to change. Beyond the meeting in Arkhangelsk, a new energy efficiency bill has gone through a first reading in the Russian Parliament, Ms. Murray said.

"That's going to happen," she said, adding that Russia recognizes that its stated goal of increasing fossil fuel exports is contingent on developing efficiency and renewable energy strategies. "In the end, if they use more renewables domestically, they can export more" fossil fuels, she said. "It's sort of a no-brainer."

I would add that another incentive for Russia to support a climate agreement is that, in the short term, one of the easiest ways for the world to cut emissions is, as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. argued in the Financial Times, to use natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity. (Natural gas still produces carbon-dioxide, but a great deal less than coal.) Russia has vast amounts of natural gas to export, and this should be a tempting proposition. Trouble is, most EU countries have been worried about making that switch because, quite understandably, they fear Russia could shut off the gas for political leverage, as it's been doing to Ukraine the past few years.

So Russia is a tough case, probably even tougher than China (at least Beijing's leaders are legitimately freaked out about pollution riots and the fact that the Gobi Desert is steadily chomping its way toward the capital). A recent report from the Center for American Progress suggested that the Obama administration could possibly entice Russia into cooperation by stressing the benefits of energy efficiency (Russia's industrial sector is notoriously creaky and wasteful). Beyond that, though, action on global warming won't be an easy sell.

--Bradford Plumer