When people think of Russia and the environment, they tend to think of the big, environmental catastrophes of the Soviet past such as Chernobyl and more recent issues like illegal logging, and hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic. However, the domestic politics and policy processes surrounding these issues are far more complex and nuanced than they might appear. The politics of climate change is no exception.

As one of the world’s top five contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a major exporter of fossil fuels, Russia’s participation in international efforts to address climate change is vital. However, Russia has been a reluctant player in international negotiations to date. While Russia eventually ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, it failed to sign up for the second commitment period. More recently, the government has signed but not yet ratified the Paris Agreement, although claims it intends to do so. Russia’s domestic policy on climate is weak and offers few incentives for industry to make significant reductions in GHG emissions.

In an article just published in Climate Policy, I look at the role played by Russian industry as a key actor in the country’s domestic climate politics, and examine how industry has responded to domestic and international policy developments. Focusing on the metals and mining sector, I explore how companies perceive the issue of climate change, their willingness to engage in policy debates, the policy options they support and the strategies they adopt to further their agenda.

Photo by Michal Pech on Unsplash

What I found was that there was widespread acceptance of climate change as a phenomenon across the metals and mining sector, and most companies were willing to report their GHG emissions and to implement energy efficiency measures. Beyond this however, there was significant variation within the sector in terms of how companies responded to policy developments.

Some companies were very active in climate policy debates. For example, a number of companies tried to lobby the government to introduce more far-reaching GHG mitigation regulations and have also advocated greater Russian participation in international climate policy efforts. At the same time, there were a number of companies that vigorously resisted the increased regulation that commitments on climate might bring.

So why the strong difference in opinions within a single industrial sector? The main reasons relate first to reputation, and second to the uneven effect of international and national policy developments. Those metals and mining companies most involved in efforts to reduce their emissions and support policy efforts also operate overseas, and have foreign minority shareholders or foreign stock exchange listings. Companies that operate in countries with more advanced climate policies are more likely to be concerned with their image and make attempts to generate positive ‘environmental PR’.

Second, Russia is home to a number of very large, diversified metals and mining companies that can more easily adapt to changing circumstances. This means they can shift out of mining coal for example and move into producing other metals if required. Dedicated coal companies, however, are not able to do so and this is where we find the greatest resistance to climate policy.

The Special Case of Coal

Within the broader metals and mining sector, coal is something of a special case. Its very existence is directly threatened by climate change mitigation policies that necessitate a shift away from coal. As we might imagine, the coal industry is very resistant to climate policy.

Coal companies employ various strategies to justify this position: they talk up the role of coal in the world’s future energy supplies, and focus on Russia’s role as an ‘environmental donor’ to the world. This is mainly due to the absorptive capacity of the country’s vast forests and the significant (though unintended) drop in Russia’s GHG emissions in the 1990s, as a result of economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Coal companies have also been supportive of ‘grassroots’ anti-climate campaigns, which have highlighted the consequences for the inhabitants of Siberia, where much of Russia’s coal is produced. These include unemployment and rises in the cost of electricity, that a shift away from coal would necessarily entail.

So what of the Russian government? As a major coal producing country, the industry is very important for the economy. A significant portion of Russia’s electricity generation comes from coal. Added to this, a great deal of coal mining takes place in single-industry towns or in areas heavily dependent on the industry, which raises important socio-economic concerns for the government. As a result, the Russian government has no plans to phase out coal, and is instead actively seeking to expand the coal industry. The close alignment of coal industry and government interests represents a formidable obstacle to any Russian commitment to climate policy at the domestic and the international level.

About the Author

Dr. Ellie Martus is a Fellow at the Department of Sociology, Global Governance GRP, University of Warwick, and a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University.