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14.04.2021. Turning to Green

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. In fact, such an unexpected outcome is one of the purposes of the situation analysis. 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 one of such ideas, that it could be a source of patriotism 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, they 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. And this is how it will certainly be if we do not start adjusting our thinking and economy to the needs and trends of the future world and try to determine and impose our own vision of environmental policy. In our work we have 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.”

We conducted a series of studies and a record number―three― 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 recently 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 websites of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Russia in Global Affairs)*.  The report is contradictory; it will certainly cause many sharp disputes and is, in fact, their result. But for all the differences, the experts and government officials participating in the discussions unanimously agreed that Russia urgently needs independent, offensive, and long-term environmental policy. Without it, Russia will be doomed to lagging in the internal affairs and get marginalized externally.

The report contains many ideas intended to provoke a discussion, hopefully constructive, and force the Russian ruling class to engage in the development of an active domestic and international environmental policy.

I will name only those ideas that are most obvious (and least provocative). 

A refusal to correct structural distortions in the Russian economy, including by developing green industries, may cause the country to fall far behind the main global economic trends for a long time in much the same way the Soviet Union fell behind in cybernetics in the 1970-1980s.

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 make a massive contribution to solving global environmental problems (and get benefits). Russia’s nature conservation agenda should be built around this contribution. Russia needs to position itself as one of the leaders in joint efforts to preserve our planet’s environment, and as an ecological and clean power in addition to other attractive roles the country plays in international affairs and the world economy (the leading provider of international security and peace, guarantor of strategic stability, defender of sovereignty and independence, political, cultural and civilizational diversity in the world, the right of countries to independently choose development models, etc.).

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, will strengthen its political influence, and bring economic gains. 

In particular, this will:- lend a new meaning to national development, give Russian society and elites an attractive and forward-looking idea, create a new consolidating national agenda that will unite both liberals and etatists, and offer the country as a whole a promising mission for itself and the world;- strengthen Russia’s authority primarily among developing countries, but also among some Western states and societies, emphasize its positive contribution to global development and strengthen its positions in the unfolding process of establishing a new international order, as well as draw economic benefits 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 21st 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 country and its people.

The proposed turn to nature is long due in Russia; it is felt by a significant part of intellectuals and bureaucracy, and it becomes increasingly popular among business and political elites.

Once again, let me emphasize that Russia’s new environmental policy should be directed inward in the first place and be aimed at modernizing the economy and giving more 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 designed mainly in the West.

The development and promotion of our own concept will allow us to stop dragging reluctantly behind the ideas put forward by the West and to start struggling to seize 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 we 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 partners realize that many aspects of their climate policies are counterproductive not only for the world, but also for Western countries themselves. The EU’s plans to introduce a “carbon tariff”―taxation of imported goods and services with high carbon content, including hydrocarbons themselves―will almost inevitably lead to a wave of compensatory duties 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 protectionist policy and ruin entire economic sectors in developed countries. Everyone will be harmed. Our report proposes joint efforts to invest in nature conservation technologies in developing countries, which will be much more beneficial. They will be much 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 achieved there.

Finally, we should jointly put forward a new development philosophy that will focus primarily on limiting excessive consumption practically by all in the rich countries and reducing overconsumption by the rich and wealthy in developing countries, including Russia. In our report, we even ventured to propose―as part of the necessary and inevitable introduction of progressive taxation―a special environmental tax on luxury goods and super-large households. Naturally, these proposals will not be eagerly welcomed by some of our compatriots, 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 that are now scattered among many departments (too many cooks spoil the broth) within one ministry with the head having the status of deputy prime minister, or within the Security Council.
We will have to formulate a new environmental policy “for ourselves and the world” anyway. The sooner we do this, the better. If we do not do it, then we will not get to the problem, but the problem will get to us.

*Turning to Nature: Russia’s New Environmental Policy in “Green” Transformation of the Global Economy and Politics


//The article was originally published in Russian in Rossiiskaya Gazeta. Federal issue #81(8432) on April 14, 2021.