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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How Putin and friends stalled climate progress

A handful of powerful world leaders rallied around Russia and undercut global cooperation.

By Somini Sengupta, Steven Lee Myers, Manuela Andreoni and Suhasini Raj

Vladimir 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 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 7 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 Putin’s invasion of a neighbor represents an apex — clashes with that ideal.

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 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 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 Putin in cutting production by the oil producers’ cartel, OPEC+, hiking up global oil prices and replenishing Putin’s coffers. Myanmar’s junta chief, Gen. Min Aung Hliang, met with Putin nine months into the war and scored an oil deal.

Setting the stage for the unraveling of global climate cooperation was one of Putin’s greatest admirers: former President Donald 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. Putin has gained from this as the increasingly autocratic Xi finds common cause with the Kremlin.

China has also softened its stance on global climate engagement, as Xi is under pressure to shore up economic growth and ensure energy security.

As the president of Russia, Putin heads a petrostate and has never welcomed a pivot away from fossil fuels. Trump and Bolsonaro eschewed international cooperation. And while Xi and Modi have both promoted renewable energy, their cooperation with Putin and their expansion of coal in the name of energy security have kept their emissions growing.

Oil and Empire

On the first day of the new millennium, Putin, a former intelligence officer with the KGB, 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, oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky; broke up his company, Yukos; and turned over most of its assets to the Russian state oil giant, Rosneft.

By 2007, 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% of the gas Europeans used to heat their homes and make electricity came from Russia.

When Putin invaded Ukraine, Europe scrambled to get off Russian energy — which only encouraged new gas projects in other parts of the world. And 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 one another in times of difficulty?

Such has been the deft calculus of Putin’s friendship with Xi. The first glimpse of this came in 2014, less than two years after Xi rose to power atop the Communist Party of China.

That same year — and in violation of international law — Putin reclaimed Crimea, a part of Ukraine, as Russian territory. Soon, Russian energy companies faced sanctions intended to slash the country’s revenues.

Enter Xi.

He played host to the Russian leader in Shanghai. They announced a 30-year, $400 billion deal to build a 1,864-mile gas pipeline from the Russian Arctic to China.

For Putin, it widened access to the world’s biggest energy consumer. For Xi, it meant reducing his country’s dependency on coal, which was poisoning the country’s air and stirring public discontent.

Today, Xi’s green economy goals face significant challenges, many of his own making. 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.

Buy Low, Sell High

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.

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.

Modi’s government did not respond for comment.

On the world stage, 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 India might need 28 gigawatts of coal power capacity over the next decade. And under 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.

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.

In addition, India’s imports 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. Modi’s oil minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, has said India faces no “moral conflict” in buying Russian oil.

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 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.

Bolsonaro’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment.

On Feb. 14 this year, as Russia amassed troops on the Ukraine border, Bolsonaro traveled to Moscow for the first time. At a news conference with Putin, Bolsonaro thanked his “dear friend,” saying Putin had offered him support when other world leaders were criticizing his Amazon policy.

Putin, in turn, called Brazil his most important partner in Latin America.

And he gave 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. In addition, for the first time since 2018, Brazil began importing Russian diesel.

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 while it was fine to explore renewable energy sources, ditching oil and gas anytime soon would be a fool’s errand.

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