Russia Veers Green: from Petro-state to Eco-power

Russia has resisted formulating its own green agenda, putting itself in a position of playing catch-up with the West. The country needs to acknowledge and incorporate the world’s inevitable energy transition in its own domestic and foreign policy. Everyone stands to benefit from greater environmental awareness on the part of the energy giant.

We made a kind of intellectual breakthrough in the middle of 2019 during a series of situation analysis sessions held under the auspices of the Russian Foreign Ministry and some public and government organizations. We discussed a non-trivial issue: the need for new ideas for Russian foreign policy. We realized during the discussions that the protection of nature in our country and the world could and should be a pillar of foreign policy for the future; it could be a source of patriotism for Russians and a means of advancing the country’s international position.

As we explored this idea further, it became clear that despite abundant rhetoric and even the adoption of many environmental measures, we had no integral policy concept in this area which occupies an increasingly important place on the international agenda. Although Russia has certain competitive advantages, it is hunkering down, biting back, and reluctantly dragging along the course being chartered mainly by Western countries. Naturally, those countries propose an agenda that is based primarily on their own interests and competitive advantages. Meanwhile, China and other developing countries are getting actively involved in the race for leadership in defining the future green agenda.

Russia, for the most part, remains stubbornly silent and its official documents sometimes even list the development of green technologies among the main challenges to national economic security. If we do not start adjusting our thinking and our economy to the needs and trends of the future, if we do not try to determine and impose our own vision of environmental policy, we will surely be left behind.

During that meeting in 2019 we made an attempt to propose a version of Russia’s independent position on environmental protection and climate “for the world.” But we quickly realized that it was impossible without formulating a new policy “for ourselves.”

Forging a green path for ourselves

We conducted a series of studies and situation analyses, trying to engage most of the prominent Russian experts—not only enthusiasts, but also skeptics. This resulted in a report, sent out to relevant agencies and then presented at tass, titled “Turning to nature: Russia’s new environmental policy in green transformation of the global economy and politics.” (The report is available on the Russia in Global Affairs website). For all the differences and contradictions that emerged, the experts and government officials participating in the discussions unanimously agreed that Russia urgently needs an independent, offensive, and long-term environmental policy. Without it, Russia will be marginalized globally and doomed to lagging in its own domestic affairs.

The report contains many ideas intended to provoke a discussion – hopefully constructive – and to force the Russian ruling class to engage in the development of an active domestic and international environmental policy. Some of the most obvious – and least provocative – conclusions are as follows.

​​Due to the peculiarities of Russia’s territory, nature, and economic specialization, its potential weight in the environmental field is much bigger than its weight in the global economy.

The country can thus make a massive contribution to solving global environmental problems and reap the consequent benefits. Russia’s nature conservation agenda should be built around this contribution. Russia needs to position itself as a primary player in joint efforts to preserve our planet’s environment, and as a world leader in ecological and clean power. Such a position would be in addition to other attractive roles the country already plays in international affairs and the world economy, as a leading provider of international security and peace, guarantor of strategic stability, defender of sovereignty and independence, defender of political, cultural and civilizational diversity in the world, and so on.

Closeness to nature and its preservation should be presented as an important part of Russia’s national identity, its mission for itself and the world. This will not only mitigate or eliminate risks from the country’s current passive environmental policy, but it will also open up many opportunities that have not yet been tapped, strengthen Russia’s political influence, and bring economic gains. In particular, this will:

  • lend new meaning to national development, give Russian society and elites an attractive and forward-looking agenda, create a new consolidating national mission that will unite both liberals and statists, and offer the country as a whole a promising mission for itself and the world;
  • strengthen Russia’s authority among developing countries, but also among some Western states and societies, emphasize its positive contribution to global development and reinforce its positions in the unfolding process of establishing a new international order; there are also economic benefits to be drawn from cooperation with other countries in the field of nature conservation;
  • give an additional impetus to the gradual transformation of the Russian economy towards non-oil and gas industries, mainly those that combine the use of natural and human capital (Russia’s main competitive advantages in the twenty-first century) thus facilitating the sustainable economic development of the country as a whole in the long term;
  • help preserve and develop the country’s natural potential, which is one of the most important foundations of patriotism and readiness to work for the Russian people.

Future benefits

The proposed turn to nature is long overdue in Russia; it is felt by a significant number of intellectuals and bureaucrats, and it is becoming increasingly popular among businesspeople and political elites. Once again: Russia’s new environmental policy should be directed inward in the first place; it should be aimed at modernizing the economy and paying closer attention to our own environment.

Its external target audience is primarily non-Western: EAEU, SCO, BRICS, and ASEAN countries, most of which are in the cloud of climate ideology, which has been designed so far mainly in the West. The development and promotion of a Russian concept will allow us to stop dragging reluctantly behind the ideas put forward by the West and to start seizing the initiative. Clearly, a new policy should not be directed against the West; in fact, global environmental protection cannot be based on a win/lose philosophy.

But Russia should propose a strategy that pursues our own and common interests. Environmental protection is one of the few areas where contact with the West, at least at the expert level, is still likely and where Western experience can be useful in helping reduce mounting unnecessary and dangerous confrontation.

Dialogue is also needed in order to make potential Western partners realize that many aspects of their climate policies are counterproductive—not only for the world, but also for themselves.

The EU’s plans to introduce a carbon tax on imported goods and services with high carbon content (including hydrocarbons) will almost inevitably lead to a wave of compensatory duties levied by countries that produce goods with a big carbon footprint. This will launch a new round of protectionism, which will dwarf the effects of Trump’s recent protectionist policies and ruin entire economic sectors in developed countries. Everyone will be harmed.

The report we produced proposes joint efforts to invest in nature conservation technologies in developing countries, which will inevitably benefit a greater number of people and places. They will be more effective in terms of nature protection than similar investments in industrialized countries, where almost any such financial commitment produces a much smaller result due to the level of environmental conservation already achieved there.

Keeping our eyes on the prize

Finally, we should draft – jointly – a new development philosophy that will focus primarily on limiting excessive consumption in the rich countries and reducing overconsumption by the rich and wealthy elsewhere, including Russia. In our report, we even ventured to propose a special environmental tax on luxury goods and super-large households, as part of the necessary and inevitable introduction of progressive taxation. Naturally, these proposals will not be welcomed eagerly, and nor were they unanimously supported by the participants in the situation analyses.

Similarly, there was no unanimous support for our proposal to converge all environmental activities (now scattered among many departments) within one ministry. In the conviction that too many cooks spoil the broth, we suggested that the head of this ministry – with the status of deputy prime minister, or as a member of the Security Council – could coordinate all the country’s efforts in this arena.

Regardless, we will have to formulate a new environmental policy, for ourselves and the world. The sooner we do this, the better. If we do not do it, it will be the problem that tackles us, rather than us that tackles the problem.


This article originally appeared in Russian in issue n. 81 of Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

This article appeared in Aspenia.it.

Aspenia international 93-94

Sergei A. Karaganov

is honorary chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy presidium and dean of the faculty of World Economics and International Affairs at the National Research University-Higher School of Economics, in Moscow.

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