How Putin and Friends Stalled Climate Progress
Vladimir V. Putin has long used Russia’s oil and gas as instruments of power at home and abroad. With the invasion of Ukraine in February, he has made it a weapon of war.
But he has not acted alone.
He has been abetted by powerful world leaders who share his nationalist or authoritarian leanings and who, together, have swept in to buy his coal, oil and gas and enabled him to finance his war. While their motivations for backing Mr. Putin vary widely — driven largely by pressures they face at home — collectively they have bedeviled global climate cooperation at a time when the warming planet is wreaking havoc on Earth’s seven billion people.
The war on Ukraine will cast a dark shadow over the global climate summit starting this week in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Those talks are predicated on a willingness among nations to work together to slow climate change. The resurgence of nationalism far and wide — of which Mr. Putin’s invasion of a neighbor represents an apex — clashes with that ideal.
“The war in Ukraine is putting climate action on the back burner while our planet itself is burning,” Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, said recently.
Mr. Putin’s supporters hail from some of the most powerful and polluting nations.
Xi Jinping of China and India’s Narendra Modi stepped up after the attack on Ukraine to buy immense volumes of Russian coal and oil at bargain prices, cushioning their own economies from a global energy crisis while allowing Mr. Putin to keep profiting from energy exports, despite Western sanctions. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who has denuded swaths of the Amazon rainforest for gold and beef, flew to the Kremlin just days before the invasion and, sitting side by side with Mr. Putin, offered “solidarity to Russia.” Afterward he announced Russia would send new supplies of desperately needed fertilizer and diesel.
Even Saudi Arabia — the world’s biggest oil exporter — bought more Russian fuel oil this year, taking advantage of exceptionally low prices. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, also joined Mr. Putin in cutting production by the oil producers’ cartel, OPEC Plus, hiking up global oil prices and replenishing Mr. Putin’s coffers. Myanmar’s junta chief, General Min Aung Hliang, met with Mr. Putin nine months into the war and scored an oil deal.
Setting the stage for the unraveling of global climate cooperation was one of Mr. Putin’s greatest admirers: former President Donald J. Trump. He pulled the United States, history’s largest polluter, out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, the agreement among nations to work together to slow climate change — a global moment of unity led by the United States and China.
Since then, however, China-U.S. ties have crumbled. Tensions are so high with the United States, over everything from trade to Taiwan, that the two countries — the largest emitters of greenhouse gases — are now barely on speaking terms. Mr. Putin has gained from this as theincreasingly autocratic Mr. Xi findscommon cause with the Kremlin.
China has also softened its stance on global climate engagement as Mr. Xi is under pressure to shore up economic growth and ensure energy security.
“We are entering into a tougher time period with respect to our climate agenda,” said Li Shuo, the Beijing-based head of Greenpeace East Asia.
The world has made considerable progress in the past decade to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and by no means are authoritarian leaders alone to blame for the world’s failure to slow warming further. In the aftermath of Russia’s war on Ukraine, even many liberal democracies have backtracked on efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in order to avert politically destabilizing energy crises at home.
The forces of failure are many. The rise of authoritarian and nationalist leaders, though, has complicated matters.
“Nationalist authoritarian leaders undoubtedly pose a threat to tackling global problems because they may be willing to flout a system that rests on each country doing its fair share,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and a former U.S. climate diplomat.
But, she pointed out, the degree to which each of them addresses climate change — or undermines it — rests on how it serves them. “Much depends on whether authoritarian leaders perceive climate action to be in their self-interest.”
Though their actions help Mr. Putin, their track records on climate are mixed. As the president of Russia, Mr. Putin heads a petrostate and has never welcomed a pivot away from fossil fuels. Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro eschewed international cooperation. And while Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi have both promoted renewable energy, their cooperation with Mr. Putin and their expansion of coal in the name of energy security has kept their emissions growing.
As for Mr. Putin, his invasion of Ukraine could ultimately unravel his grand strategy. It could encourage countries to get off oil and gas more quickly. The International Energy Agency last week forecast that gas demand would peak by the end of this decade, following coal and oil.
Mr. Putin has denied that he leverages his energy resources for geopolitical power and accused the energy-guzzling West of hypocrisy. He blames instead what he called the “aggressive promotion of the green agenda” for an underinvestment in oil and gas. Other countries are “constantly trying to blame others for their own mistakes, in this case, Russia,” he said.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Igor Sechin, a close confidant of Mr. Putin and head of the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft, told an energy conference that a new drilling project in the Arctic would bring relief to rising global energy prices.
It is “the only project in the world that can bring a stabilizing effect on the oil market,” Mr. Sechin said. He went on to compare it with Noah’s Ark. Oil would save the world.
Oil and empire
On the first day of the new millennium, Mr. Putin, a former intelligence officer with the K.G.B., took over Russia and set upon a path of restoring the grandeur of the Soviet empire, built upon the riches of Russia’s oil and gas.
He swiftly imposed control over the country’s energy companies and put his trusted allies in charge of them. In October 2003 he ordered the arrest of the country’s richest man, the oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, broke up his company, Yukos, and turned over most of its assets to state-owned Rosneft.
By 2007, Mr. Putin had struck a deal to build a pipeline sending natural gas to Germany. A few years later, he traveled to Vyborg, the town where the pipeline began, to press the button to start the gas flowing. With that simple gesture, he gained a powerful economic lever over the daily lives of Europeans, and the politicians they elect.
Within a decade, 40 percent of the gas that Europeans used to heat their homes and make electricity came from Russia.
When Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, Europe scrambled to get off Russian energy — which only encouraged new gas projects in other parts of the world. And Mr. Putin derided pledges by governments on the continent to reduce or end their dependence on Russian energy.
“There is no rational replacement in Europe now,” he said.
A pipeline to China
What are friends for if not to lift each other in times of difficulty?
Such has been the deft calculus of Mr. Putin’s friendship with Mr. Xi. The first glimpse of this came in 2014, less than two years after Mr. Xi rose to power atop the Communist Party of China.
That same year — and in violation of international law — Mr. Putin reclaimed Crimea, a part of Ukraine, as Russian territory. Soon, Russian energy companies faced sanctions intended to slash the country’s revenues.
Enter Mr. Xi.
For Mr. Putin, it widened access to the world’s biggest energy consumer. For Mr. Xi, it meant reducing his country’s dependency on coal, which was poisoning the country’s air and stirring public discontent.
Mr. Xi pursued this relationship even as he met with President Barack Obama, announcing later that same year a landmarkclimate cooperation deal that laid the groundwork for the Paris accord.
He also set China on a course to develop more wind and solar power than any country in the world. He secured the world’s cobalt and lithium supplies — key minerals for the renewable energy economy. He turned China into the leading exporter of everything from solar photovoltaic cells to electric buses. His call for an “ecological civilization” became enshrined by Chinese officials as part of “Xi Jinping Thought.”
Sam Mcneil/Associated Press
“He sees climate as an area for staking China’s global leadership,” said Cecilia Han Springer, who tracks China’s energy and climate policy at Boston University.
China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
This is in stark contrast to Mr. Putin. And yet, the two men have carefully cultivated a relationship of mutual need.
They have met nearly 40 times, sometimes celebrating birthdays together. In 2018, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Mr. Xi draped a golden medal around Mr. Putin’s neck, China’s first ever friendship medal. Mr. Xi called Mr. Putin his “best friend.”
He was returning the favor from a year earlier, when Mr. Putin hosted Mr. Xi at the Grand Kremlin Palace and awarded him one of Russia’s highest medals for foreign dignitaries.
Their personal and political trajectories are similar. Both have consolidated power at home. Both harbor a deep seated distrust of the West.
Today Mr. Xi’s green economy goals face significant challenges, many of his own making. Mr. Xi’s zero Covid policy battered the economy. Last fall, a coal shortage prompted widespread electricity blackouts. Few things sow doubts about the strength of a leader like power cuts.
And so, economic growth and energy security took priority over greening the Chinese economy. Over the past year, China, which accounts for little more than half the world’s coal consumption, has doubled down on coal, building three times more electricity-generating coal capacity in 2021 — 33 gigawatts — than the rest of the world combined. Coal emissions have risen significantly.
The deepening strains between the United States and China now pose grave risks to the world’s ability to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. That widening fault line only helps Mr. Putin.
“To the extent that a Russia-China partnership is designed to cut out the United States, it is bad for climate action,” said David Sandalow, a former White House aide who wrote a book on China’s climate policies.
Buy low, sell high
Mr. Putin’s bet on Asia is impossible without India. Its energy demand is projected to grow faster than any other country over the next 20 years.
Mr. Modi has played that role to his advantage. India needs energy at low prices. India is also home to some very big refineries. The war in Ukraine has given India new opportunities.
Mr. Modi has what he calls a “special chemistry” with Mr. Putin. He sees him as trustworthy, he said, and shares with him an affinity for wildlife and physical fitness. “I know that physically he is a very well-built person, he leads an active lifestyle, keeps himself in shape. I love it,” Mr. Modi said in an interview with Tass, the Russian news agency. “He is also interested in the environment, wildlife, the underwater world, especially in the conservation of tigers, and so on. I’m the same by nature.”
Mr. Modi can be a figure of contradictions. A charismatic pro-business, Hindu-nationalist politician, he won landslide elections in 2014 and 2019.
His critics note that at home, his government has cracked down on dissent, consolidated his power and made religious minorities second-class citizens. In 2021, the government charged a young climate activist, Disha Ravi, with sedition.
Mr. Modi’s government did not respond to a comment. In the past, the government has responded to criticism by saying the country is a “vibrant democracy” where laws are applied equally to all citizens.
On the world stage Mr. Modi has cast himself as a climate statesman. He has put India on a path to meet an ambitious target to have half of its electricity come from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030. He created regulations requiring utilities to get a significant chunk of their electricity from renewables.
At the same time, his administration has approved coal mines, including in an ecologically sensitive old-growth forest. A government agency projects that India might need 28 gigawatts of coal power capacity over the next decade. And under Mr. Modi’s tenure as prime minister, a coal baron with whom he has long had close ties, Gautam Adani, has become Asia’s richest man.
Mr. Modi’s “special chemistry” with Mr. Putin has delivered a boon to both countries.
Reliance Industries Limited in Jamnagar, via Associated Press
Indian refineries are bringing in vastly higher volumes of low-cost Russian crude oil than before, and turning it into diesel, which now sells at high prices, thanks to the war. Imports of Russian crude went from an anemic 30,000 barrels last year to 1 million barrels a day in April, and are now hovering around 800,000 barrels a day, according to figures from Kpler, a commodities analyst.
At the moment, much of it appears to be sold inside India. But analysts expect exports to grow as European sanctions against the import of Russian oil toughen in December and diesel demand is set to soar.
“It’s pure refinery economics,” said Homayoun Falakshahi, an analyst at Kpler. Once refined into diesel, it’s no longer considered Russian oil. “On paper it would be Indian diesel,” he said.
In addition, India’s import of Russian coal are set to double this year, compared with 2021, according to Kpler.
India’s oil ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mr. Modi’s oil minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, has said India faces no “moral conflict” in buying Russian oil. “Modi’s government doesn’t feel the pressure. We are the fifth largest economy in the world,” he said in a recent CNN interview. “India will respond according to its supreme national interest.”
Legacy of damage
On the other side of the planet, in Brazil, voters in 2018 elected a right-wing nationalist, Jair Bolsonaro, as president. He dismissed the need to address climate change. He set out to convert much of the Amazon into farmland to elevate Brazil as an agricultural powerhouse.
One of the first things Mr. Bolsonaro did when he took office in 2019 was to dismantle the $1.2 billion Amazon Fund, backed by Norway and Germany to fight environmental crime. He gutted environmental protection agencies and stripped their budgets, making it all but impossible to collect fines for illegal deforestation.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment. In the past he has frequently denied his policies have been harmful to the Amazon.
On Feb. 14 this year, as Russia amassed troops on the Ukraine border, Mr. Bolsonaro traveled to Moscow for the first time. At a news conference with Mr. Putin, Mr. Bolsonaro thanked his “dear friend,” saying that Mr. Putin had offered him support when other world leaders were criticizing his Amazon policy. “I want to thank your intervention, which was always on our side, in defense of our sovereignty.”
Mr. Putin, in turn, called Brazil his most important partner in Latin America.
Andre Penner/Associated Press
And he gave Mr. Bolsonaro what he badly needed, a promise of unlimited supplies of Russian-made fertilizer at low prices, at a time when global fertilizer prices were soaring, punishing Brazil’s farmers. Russian fertilizer imports, which were falling sharply, grew by over 20 percent over the next five months compared with the year-earlier period. In addition, for the first time since 2018, Brazil began importing Russian diesel.
It wasn’t enough to save Mr. Bolsonaro’s political future. He lost the election last week.
But he leaves a legacy of damage that could take decades to repair, if at all. Chief among them: In his first three years as president alone, Brazil recorded more than 13,000 square miles of deforestation in the Amazon.
As with Mr. Bolsonaro, Donald Trump’s actions will far outlast his presidency.
Consider one of his earliest decisions, to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement — an agreement his predecessor had just negotiated. It played directly into Putin’s vision of the future. When the nations of the world agreed in Paris to work together to fight climate change back in 2015, Mr. Putin didn’t object to the pact.
Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
But he didn’t need to because the very next year, the newly elected Mr. Trump took a wrecking ball to it when he not only pulled out of the Paris accord but also commenced a sweeping rollback of environmental regulations.
Mr. Trump’s actions continue to shape the world. His rollbacks are projected to add at least 1.8 billion tons of extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2035 and lead to thousands of extra deaths annually from poor air quality.
On Friday a spokesman for Mr. Trump, Taylor Budowich, said: “Climate radicals are not just attempting to destroy American energy, but the very pursuit of the American Dream. President Trump led America’s energy renaissance that ensured safe and reliable energy production, and low prices for every American.”
War to shape the future
Earlier this year, on the fourth of February, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin met at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. They signed a $117 billion oil deal. Twenty days later, Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine.
In October, Mr. Xi secured a third term as president. His grip on power became nearly absolute. And in hisremarks at the historic moment, he made clear that he wouldn’t be rushed on getting rid of coal. “We will advance initiatives to reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased way in line with the principle of building the new before discarding the old,” he said.
Mr. Putin’s fossil fuel riches have been hard for the world to discard. The value of his exports have grown since the war. China’s oil imports from Russia have doubled, Turkey’s more than tripled, and India’s quintupled.
Last month, speaking at an energy forum in Moscow, he said that while it was fine to explore renewable energy sources, ditching oil and gas anytime soon would be a fool’s errand. “Jumping the gun for political reasons, especially populist domestic policies — come on, who does that?” Mr. Putin said.
Additional reporting by Edward Wong and Raymond Zhong
Produced by Claire O’Neill and Jesse Pesta