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EUREN Brief 10
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EU and Russia: could climate change be the common challenge that unites?

The announcement by the Russian government in late September 2019 of its ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change corrected an anomaly that had Russia staying out of the Agreement till then, along with a handful of other countries. [1] Whatever the internal political and economic reasons for this delay, the fact of the matter is that Russia shares the concerns of the rest of the European continent about the adverse effects of climate change. [2] How could it not, when these effects are clearly evident with the extensive forest fires in Siberia in the summer of 2019, the failed wheat crops caused by very high temperatures and drought, the Arctic ice disappearance, permafrost thawing, etc.

For its part, the European Union (EU) and its member states were among the first to ratify the Paris Agreement. The EU prides itself on being a global leader on climate action, setting ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets for 2020 and 2030 respectively, along with renewable energy and energy efficiency targets. [3] This figures prominently in the vision of the incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who wants the EU to be more ambitious and become "the world's first climate-neutral continent" as part of a "European Green Deal". [4]

As major industrial powers, the EU and Russia are among those primarily responsible for the anthropogenic causes of climate change. When taken collectively, the EU comes third in terms of GHG emissions, after China and the USA, while Russia comes fifth, after India and before Japan. In terms of per capita emissions, the average Russian citizen emits more than the average EU citizen. [5] All of these powers, and indeed the international community as a whole, share the responsibility to significantly lower emissions if the Paris Agreement goal of holding the global average temperature increase well below 2°C (compared to pre-industrial levels) is to be met. [6]

Georgios Kostakos

Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS), Brussels
As major industrial powers, the EU and Russia are among those primarily responsible for the anthropogenic causes of climate change. When taken collectively, the EU comes third in terms of GHG emissions, after China and the USA, while Russia comes fifth, after India and before Japan

Russia's and the EU's GHG emissions are mainly caused by the energy generation, industry, transport, agriculture and waste management sectors, even if there are differences in the percentages per sector. A key difference between Russia and the EU is the availability of fossil fuels and other natural resources in their respective territories. In fact, Russia is the main supplier of crude oil, natural gas and solid fossil fuels to the energy-dependent EU (see EUREN Brief no. 12 by Oldag Caspar). [7] This could explain the relative frugality of the EU, the incentive to introduce more efficient technologies and processes, and the emphasis that has been placed on developing renewable energy sources. There is more complacency and less efficiency in Russia, however, because of an abundance of resources (see EUREN Brief no. 11 by Natalia Piskulova).

In the medium- to long-term, there is a strong case for Russia and the EU to take action in response to advancing climate change, both in terms of climate change mitigation (i.e. reducing emissions) and adaptation (i.e. minimising the impact/increasing resilience). The longer action is delayed, the higher the eventual costs will be. [8] Global competitiveness could be lost with severe consequences if the transition to low-carbon technologies and new energy sources is not done early enough. This is particularly relevant to Russia because of its low climate ambition. [9]

Tackling climate change offers the EU more than economic benefits, such as increased competitiveness. It also provides the opportunity to develop a unifying ideology, a rallying cry for centrally coordinated action and resource allocation in a thematic area where the policy framework is set at Union level. This is made all the more important by the connection there is to energy generation and use. Furthermore, it partly balances the Union's weakness in traditional forms of political power, such as defence and fiscal issues, vis-à-vis its member states. Externally, this helps to strengthen the EU's profile in the world as a benign superpower that supports the developing world through large amounts of development and humanitarian assistance, while showing the way for effective action on another major global challenge that is climate change.
While geopolitical tensions between the EU and Russia persist, along with sanctions and counter-sanctions, cooperation on matters that relate to climate and the environment offers opportunities to build common ground. This is because such cooperation is not subject to the sanctions regime unless it concerns technology or goods of potentially dual (civilian and military) use.

Areas of cooperation

Significant potential for cooperation exists in areas such as:

a) The Arctic as an area of shared stewardship, nature protection and scientific research

Building on Russia's positive stance in the context of the Arctic Council, the EU could encourage initiatives that help to avoid creeping militarisation, harsh competition for resource exploitation, and potentially illegal activities or accidents because of the region's increasing accessibility. Such initiatives could include the joint declaration and management of marine nature reserves, the coordinated monitoring of oil spills and other potential threats to the arctic ecosystems, response capabilities should they occur, as well as joint research activities. Ongoing cooperation between the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland within the "Northern Dimension" [10] could be expanded in this direction.

b) A joint initiative in the UNFCCC context

In the past, it was the US and China that showed leadership in advancing climate action, notably during the Obama Presidency. It was this "G2" arrangement and leadership commitment at the highest level that paved the way for the Paris Agreement. The US under President Trump is now out of the picture, so the possibility of the EU asserting its leadership role is there, especially after the new Commission President's European Green Deal. If the EU took on such a role, it could reach out not only to China, but also Russia for a joint initiative. This could possibly be a joint venture concerning a high-emitting sector or activity, or a jointly-developed and/or promoted technological solution that could be undertaken in preparation for next year's United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP 26), due to take place in Glasgow in November 2020.

While geopolitical tensions between the EU and Russia persist, along with sanctions and counter-sanctions, cooperation on matters that relate to climate and the environment offers opportunities to build common ground

c) Sharing and developing common policies and standards for dealing with climate change, its causes and impact

The EU is quite advanced in developing broad policies for climate action in terms of mitigation and adaptation, energy efficiency, building codes, etc. that are followed by EU member states and others. It is certainly in the EU's political, economic, technical and "cultural" interest to "export" such policies and policy-making know-how to Russia. The effect would be even more positive if the EU could persuade and support Russia to promote such policies in the context of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Such an alignment of policies and related standards would help to avoid future tensions between the two sides regarding trade and the climate footprint of goods and services.

d) Cooperation and the exchange of best practices at a local level

Beyond the central authorities, the responsibility for action in response to climate change lies on a daily basis with local authorities in each country. Best practices developed in Russian or EU cities could be taken up and applied more widely. Existing networks, such as the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy and ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, [11] provide a broadly accepted context for such cooperation. Special bilateral arrangements, including a special programme for enhanced EU-Russia city twinning, could also be used. Beyond climate and energy issues this could include exchanges and cooperation on waste management, a circular economy and nature-based solutions in urban settings.

e) Joint pilot projects in areas of mutual concern

Many areas of technical expertise need to be advanced if carbon neutrality and economic development that does not harm the environment are to become reality. This is true of both Russia and the EU. The best minds and technological institutes of the two sides could come together to solve the lingering issues about smart grids, energy storage, new energy sources, etc. Such projects could be funded by expanding the scope of existing EU programmes, like Horizon and LIFE. Alternatively, or additionally, such projects could benefit from a special funding mechanism that might also bring in private industry for scaling up once technological solutions have been found.

f) Youth exchanges and cooperation

Fridays for Future [12] shows that young people around the world feel strongly about the threat of climate change and demand immediate action. An EU – Russia Youth Forum for a Sustainable Future could be a positive way to exchange views and coordinate action among the youth across borders. For it to be meaningful and representative, such a forum should not be established by an official decree from either side. It could, instead, be encouraged by increasing funding for youth mobility between the EU and Russia through existing programmes, like the EU's Erasmus+ and/or new dedicated arrangements. Such an initiative could help to raise awareness and increase engagement more broadly between people and communities on both sides.

Beyond the central authorities, the responsibility for action in response to climate change lies on a daily basis with local authorities in each country. Best practices developed in Russian or EU cities could be taken up and applied more widely

If one takes it that climate change is seen as a common threat by the EU and Russia, one could even propose a joint "Climate and Environment Security Council" at the level of relevant ministers/commissioners. The Council would debate and decide on big-picture cooperation, like the first couple of proposals introduced above, while also creating the framework for implementing other, more specific proposals. Of course, all of the above cooperation possibilities can only materialise and bear fruit in an atmosphere of mutual respect between the EU and Russia.


Georgios Kostakos participated in the 11th EUREN meeting on "Russia and the EU in multilateral fora" on 31 October – 1 November 2019 in Moscow. This paper is based on his presentation. Its content is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the position of individual EUREN members or EUREN as a group.