Russia’s Climate Policy: Prisoner’s Dilemma

This autumn world’s leaders and delegates gathered at United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, to meet the expectations of taking more concrete steps to reduce emissions. However, the “world’s moment of truth”, as the United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the summit,[1] has been jeopardized even before the conference had started. Along with the Chinese counterpart, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin decided not to attend climate summit. Albeit there are some assumptions of a such decision, for example, critical coronavirus situation at home and participation at G20 summit where Putin has already outlined Russia’s position towards climate change, the real reason of not attending the summit is even deeper, revealing prisoner’s dilemma in Russia’s climate policy.

As the climate change has become a noticeable issue in worlds affairs and more countries are urging for a comprehensive response in order to save the planet, Russia faces a difficult choice to be made regarding its response. Russia is at the forefront of climate change since its impact is clearly evident. As the country whose more than a half territory is occupied by permafrost, Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world.[2] In addition, Russia experiences more natural disasters than before. For example, in June 2020, the temperature hit 38 degrees Celsius in Verkhoyansk, which is probably the highest temperature ever observed beyond the Arctic Circle and which caused widespread fires in the Russian taiga.[3] Melting permafrost, heatwaves, wildfires and floods possess risks not only to Russia’s nature, but also to public health and security, livelihood and infrastructure. At the Valdai forum on October 21 President Putin acknowledged that it is impossible to deny these processes when they had become almost a norm.[4]

Taking into consideration hazards on its own land caused by climate change, Russia has chosen to introduce climate change issues into its foreign policy. In other words, natural disasters happening at home help Russia to show its affiliation and deep understanding of importance and impact of changing climate to the rest of the world. Having said that, in the official rhetoric, Kremlin is not abstaining from statements about the highest importance of climate to Russia and responsible attitude towards reducing emissions globally, stressing its international commitment in preserving nature. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has continuously emphasised before and made it again in his speech at G20 summit in Rome that Russia is fulfilling all its obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement and Russia is among the world’s leaders of the global decarbonization.[5] Even more, at the Russian Energy Week conference in Moscow Putin has announced ambitious plans that Russia will strive to become carbon neutral by 2060.[6] With such moves Russia is showing other countries and organisations its presence at climate change issues, which is viewed as a new field of international affairs.

In the context of prisoner’s dilemma, it may seem that Russia is determined to cooperate with those who consider climate change as an immediate issue to tackle, for example, the European Union and the United States. However, in spite of many vivid declarations, there are legitimate concerns about Russia’s implementation of policies in order to reach stated climate targets. Russia is the world’s fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, producing 5% of carbon dioxide emissions.[7] It is the second-biggest natural gas producer in the world, and due to aging and leaking infrastructure is a significant polluter of oil and gas-based methane.[8] Moreover, the goal to reduce carbon emissions by 2030 to 70% of 1990 level looks more like a window dressing, as due to the record-high level of emissions during the Soviet times, it allows Russia to fulfil all its international obligations with only little impact on the state’s policy.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s domestic climate policy, targets and finance are considered as insufficient.[9] There is a lack of documents on the gradual reduction of fossil fuels usage, the new, updated Climate Doctrine is stuck in government cabinets (the latest one is adopted in 2009). Russia’s officials are sceptical about renewable energy, and therefore considerable uncertainty remains there. Climate change is not an important issue for Russia’s public too, and government officials promote the principle of adapting to the new reality.

Taking into account Russia’s reluctant steps, it is clearly seen that Russia is not excited about the global efforts to diversify energy supplies and reduce emissions, and it has its own reasons for that. Russia is heavily relying on extracting and exporting hydrocarbons, such as oil, gas, mineral resources. The share of oil and gas production constitutes more than 30% of Russian economy, and recently this dependence has increased even more.[10] Consequently, Russia is interested in increased utilisation of hydrocarbons, and melting Arctic opens broader opportunities for cheaper and faster extraction and transportation of the resources. In fact, Energy Strategy to 2035, Yamal project and Nord Stream II indicate Russia’s ambitions to preserve and expand the export of fossil fuels. Additionally, Russia sees the melting ice as opportunity to employ the Northern Sea Route year-round, which would allow to increase both domestic and international shipping. European share of the Russian export estimates around 42%,[11] and as a result, economic circumstances define Russia’s stance on tackling climate change.

All things considered, Russia definitely is not a flagman and the first in a row in mitigating climate change. Russia has involved in climate issues not because of its own will, but due to the shift in global politics. From prisoner’s dilemma point of view, Russia would not insist on cooperation if the rest of the world refuse to take action. Even more, Russia probably hoped that climate policies would never reach current stage of development. Both Russia and the world could be getting equal, but short-term benefits from non-cooperation in handling climate change. However, many countries of the world have decided to reduce anthropogenic impact on nature, primarily focusing on limiting the usage of fossil energy and decreasing carbon emissions.

Since the world has taken action in fighting climate change, Russia itself has two possible action plans to choose from. First, Russia has an opportunity to take a different path, meaning that it would continue to expand the production and usage of fossil fuels. Although Russia would gain in terms of instant financial income, the drawback of this choice is a long-term threat to Russia’s place in the world. Russia aims to become the world superpower, and refusing to tackle problems raised by the global warming hits its global stance and reputation. Intensification of the fossil fuels extraction and reluctancy to introduce nature-friendly solutions possess severe long-term threats for Russia’s ecology. Last, but not least, the world’s demand for fossil fuels is predicted to decrease with the expansion of renewable energy solutions.

Second, Russia has an option to cooperate with other countries in tackling climate change. That would provide a similar result for both sides - everyone would have a certain struggle while finding the new, nature friendly way of living, but it is undeniably beneficial and inevitable in the long-run. With this in mind, Russia would need to significantly change its stance on economy and greatly reduce its dependency on non-renewable resources. However, official documents and rhetoric indicate that Russia is not willing to give up its traditional policy. Quite on the contrary, Russia wants to extract and sell hydrocarbons more than before. These action plans require the introduction of totally different policies and provide embarrassment for decision makers.

With the willingness of increasing the export of fossil fuels and the aim of enlarging its global role in the world, Russia faces prisoner’s dilemma in its stance towards policies of climate change. As many countries have decided for immediate steps to be considered, Russia has two main options regarding its own policy – to cooperate or not. While Russia seems to be still deciding on which option to choose, it has introduced its own way of dealing with the dilemma. Rhetorically Russia is keen on mitigating the climate change, but in reality, it significantly lags behind other countries. It is predictable that Russia will continue to sit on two chairs in the nearest future. However, increased external pressure and domestic challenges could lead Russia towards stronger cooperation with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, non-binding commitments to limit coal usage, increase financial support for most vulnerable countries and continue negotiations over emissions-cutting plans in 2022 agreed at COP26 are still insufficient to shift Russia’s climate policy.



[1] BBC News. 31.10.2021. COP26: ‘Moment of truth' as world meets for climate summit.

[2] Conley, H.A. 13.01.2021. Climate Change Will Reshape Russia. Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[3] Davydova, A. 08.07.2020. Siberia Swelters in the Age of Climate Change. The Moscow Times.

[4] Путин, В. 21.10.2021. Речь на заседании дискуссионного клуба «Валдай». Президент России.

[5] Путин, В. 31.10.2021. Речь на втором заседании саммита «Группы двадцати». Президент России.

[6] ТАСС. 13.10.2021. Путин: Россия будет добиваться достижения углеродной нейтральности не позднее 2060 года.

[7] World Population Review. 2021. Greenhouse Gas Emissions By Country 2021.

[8] Mufson, S., Khurshudyan, I., Mooney, C., Dennis, B., Muyskens, J. and Ahmed, N. 19.10.2021. Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril. The Washington Post.

[9] Climate Action Tracker. 29.10.2021. Russian Federation.

[10] Warsaw Institute. 24.02.2020. Russia’s Economy Is Becoming Heavily Dependent on Hydrocarbons.

[11] Аналитический центр при Правительстве Российской Федерации. 2020. Бюллетень о текущих тенденциях российской экономики. Динамика внешней торговли России в условиях пандемии COVID-19.

Published 15 November 2021

Author Elīna Smetaņina