New energy trends in the Russian Arctic: Could Russia lead the way in becoming a climate leader?

Hilma Salonen,
Doctoral Candidate,
Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki,

Sohvi Kangasluoma,
Doctoral Candidate,
Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki,

Climate change and Russia

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our times, also for Russia. As an Arctic country, Russia feels the effects of climate change in an acute and very concrete way. However, in a country where climate denialism is still strong and the fossil fuel industry has a significant lobbying power, actors pushing for any kind of change face several barriers. Therefore, it is still uncertain how much will change even though Russia ratified the Paris agreement in the fall of 2019 and has internationally committed to limiting its CO2 emissions. Recent environmental protests regarding the Siberian wildfires or waste management problems, for example, demonstrate that people pay attention to the changes happening around them and that the state cannot ignore the issue forever. In December 2019, a national action plan for adapting to climate change was released by the government. The document lists measures needed in order to mitigate the effects of the warming climate, as well as opportunities that are expected to arise in the new era. These opportunities include the lower energy utilization in the Arctic, as well as the possibilities linked to the opening of the Northern Sea Route. In the current climate crisis, however, Russia cannot focus only on the opportunities presented by climate change without ambitious efforts to mitigate it. Achieving this would require a rather radical shift on the political level, but as several studies already point out, the change must happen sooner or later.

Since the Northern regions warm faster than other regions of the world, many radical changes are already visible in the landscape of the Russian Arctic. As the ground melts, so does the permafrost, releasing methane into the atmosphere and causing buildings to collapse. The unpredictable problems caused by the warming climate also pose a risk to many traditional livelihoods. Energy, specifically fossil fuels, are at the core of Russian economy as their revenues make up a lion’s share of the state budget. The production of hydrocarbons is the heart that keeps the blood circulating in the country. Since the Arctic is where most of the Russian hydrocarbons are located, the effects of the “Arctic paradox” are especially strong there. The term refers to a situation where the warming climate makes it possible to exploit new energy resources, which then further speeds up the climate change.

Arctic “exceptionalism”

In the Russian context, the Arctic has a special status. Russia has by far the longest coastline on the Arctic Sea, granting it a lot of leverage on Arctic issues in international arenas. Most of the country’s energy production happens in the Arctic since its resource base consists of 90% of Russian natural gas resources and 70% oil. Large-scale energy projects bring along investments, high technology, and good salaries, but only in very limited areas. Most of the region struggles to attract any money from the state, yet is affected by the emissions of fossil fuel and mining industries. It is thus important to remember that the Arctic is not solely a fossil fuel production base and that its regions are not equally rich in energy resources.

Instead, dozens of remote settlements located outside bigger towns are transporting their fuel from thousands of kilometers away, a process which may take up to two years to finish and is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. Some regions have begun to explore the possibilities of alternative, renewable energy sources. The Russian Arctic has significant potential for wind and solar energy production, and even for utilizing biomass resources, and some pilot projects are already being tested out. The spread of renewables in the Russian Arctic is slowed down by the fact that communities that would most profit from their use often have the least resources for doing that, while the federal resources are targeted at certain carefully selected pilot projects.

One important pilot project is the expected opening of the Northern Sea Route, which is planned to become a major transportation route between Europe and Asia as its ice cover melts. Growth of international transit in the Russian Arctic is expected to help boost the socio-economic development of the region and connect it with global trade. It is worth noting that most plans do not note the possibility that severe weather conditions deter shipping companies from utilizing the route also in the future, despite its shorter duration. Projects like the Northern Sea Route, with the new energy and transport infrastructure involved, are a good example of the exceptional status that the Arctic has in Russian national politics, and of the current Arctic interests of Moscow. Small, grass-root projects such as renewable energy development or the energy needs of small municipalities cannot compete with these priorities.

Hopes for the future

As the global climate movement has expanded, as well as the effects of climate change have become more visible, it is becoming rather evident that no country can overlook the implications of climate change. Even as Russia’s focus in the National action plan focuses on the adaptation to climate change and prepares to reap the benefits of the opening Northern Sea Route, some observers point out that Russia continues to have all the potential (renewable energy resources, skilled workforce) to become a forerunner in action against climate change. Investing in decentralized, smaller-scale projects would not necessarily entail economic losses or less international prestige. This direction seems rather unlikely in the context of the current fossil fuel regime, and there is no reason for heedless optimism. However, it will be interesting to see how the objective to adapt to climate change without making radical changes in the current socio-economic system will hold in the future.

Sources of reference

Berdin, V. Kh., Kokorin, A. O., Yulkin, G. M., Yulkin, M. A., 2017. Renewable energy in off-grid settlements in the Russian Arctic. Moscow: WWF

Tynkkynen, Veli-Pekka, 2019. The Energy of Russia – Hydrocarbon Culture and Climate Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

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