As is often the case with Vladimir Putin, there’s more to the Ukraine crisis than meets the eye. Climate change, for example, can prove a useful tool for Russia in its conflict with the west over the Ukrainian border.
Although the Kremlin is not a public denier of the climate crisis, it is certainly dragging its feet, particularly considering Russia’s position as the world’s fourth largest CO2 emitter. In fact, last December the Russian government vetoed a United Nations resolution to call climate change a threat to world peace and security.
As the European Union’s main supplier of crude oil and natural gas, Moscow understands that the more global warming destroys the Arctic, the more cash it can make from the gas and oil it extracts from it, transports across an ice-free ocean, and sells to the EU in large quantities.
According to the latest UN analysis, Russia’s energy strategy includes plans to increase gas production by 35% by 2035. This can only be achieved by securing access to hydrocarbon deposits in the Arctic, where ice volume is currently decreasing, on average, by 35% in winter and 75% in summer, due to global warming.
Last year, freight transport on the so-called Northern Sea Route (NSR), which links the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait via the Arctic, set an all-time record: ships carried 35 million tonnes of cargo – 350% more than just five years ago. Leading the way in maritime traffic were oil and gas tankers, the key cargoes being liquefied natural gas from the Novatek project and oil from the Gazprom project, according to Russia’s NSR public council.
While the Kremlin’s goal to reach 80 million tonnes by 2024 and 110 million tonnes by 2030 does nothing but discredit Russia’s emission reduction plans and ‘climate neutrality’ pledge, the fact remains that the EU still depends heavily on Russia for energy. The bloc imports around 400 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year. Of this, more than 152 billion cubic metres come from Russia, accounting for 40%. Germany alone bought 66% of the gas it used in 2020 from Russia.
As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds and sanctions against Russia are unveiled, the decision by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia has carried most weight, thus far. The move is particularly significant given Berlin’s long-standing resistance to pulling the plug on the project, despite strong pressure from the United States and some European countries to do so before now.
Scholz’s announcement was welcomed by many, not least the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleb, who called it the “morally, politically and practically correct step in the current circumstances”. On the other hand, Russia’s former president and current deputy chair of the security council, Dmitry Medvedev, poked fun at the decision to halt certification of the pipeline, saying “Europeans are very soon going to pay 2,000 euros for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas!”
Moscow’s geostrategic ambitions mean drilling in the Arctic in search of gas and oil to transport through an increasingly ice-free sea is still high on the Kremlin’s agenda. For western allies, there is another reason to fight climate change.