As Russia gets set to mark the Year of the Environment in 2017, there is growing hope that the Kremlin might be able to partner with the EU on several showcase environmental projects.

A view of Moscow from the 54th floor of the Moscow City business center. Photo: RIA Novosti

2017 will be the Year of the Environment in Russia. The Kremlin has already announced numerous environmental projects (involving both education and infrastructure) to implement within this year. In addition, it will spread awareness among Russians about the nation’s increasing ecological problems.

This move by the Kremlin echoes the global trend, as indicated by the much-touted Paris Climate Change Agreement signed in December 2015 to replace the outdated Kyoto Protocol. And that raises the prospect of potential collaboration between Russia and other nations that are similarly aligned on environmental goals. There might even be an opportunity for Russia and the EU to partner together in 2017.

The EU is one of the most important stakeholders that is concerned with the challenges of climate change and environmental protection. Over the past few years, the EU has sought to maintain an image of being the key driver of the “green trend” globally. For example, the EU’s expenses on environmental protection were the highest in 2013 in comparison with other countries.

Thanks to the EU’s heft and its large-scale financing of environmental projects in the regions bordering Russia, the latter is improving its environmental record heading into 2017.

Russia and the EU: A history of collaboration

To understand the future basis of cooperation, it’s important first to understand that Russia and the EU actually have a 25-year history of environmental partnership. In 1991, within the Technical Assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States (TACIS) program, the EU started a project that dealt with the environment and nonproliferation. It also involved Russia and contributed to alleviating some environmental and nuclear challenges.

Nearly ten years later, 2000 saw the creation of the Russian Regional Center for Environmental Protection (now defunct). For nearly two and one-half years, Russia and the EU extensively cooperated to harmonize environmental state standards and help the Russian authorities to improve environmental legislation. Its cost was €2.5 million (approximately $2.65 million).

Another project, Civil Protection, which was implemented from 2010 to 2013, sought to come up with a framework of how to prepare and respond to natural and man-made disasters as well as protect the environment and population by increasing the country’s resilience to numerous external factors, including emergencies brought on by large-scale weather events.

Recommended: "The Paris climate change agreement: One year later"

At the same time, an international foundational for supporting environmental collaboration was created, with €100 million ($106 million) allocated to implement the project. The banks of some European countries provided large long-term loans to get off the ground dozens of environmental protection projects in the St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Novgorod regions, as well as in the republics of Karelia and Komi, located in northwestern Russia. Within this program, the authorities established clean air and water infrastructure projects, including plants that recycled the waste of the chemical and cellulose industries.   

Moreover, the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, a German non-governmental organization, fostered EU-Russia academic and student exchanges in the field of environmental protection, with numerous grants and scholarships available for students and academics. Their goals were to spread awareness about environmental challenges and foster the decision-making process.

Russia and the EU: The current situation

Today, Russia-EU environmental cooperation is regulated within the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed by Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Ministry and its EU counterpart in Helsinki, Finland in October 2006. This initiative includes the creation of a special working group and seven sub-groups that are supposed to come up with a common environmental agenda and policy. In 2013, the PCA working group held its last session in Brussels. Unfortunately, the civil war in Ukraine interrupted and froze this process and the European Investment Bank (EIB) stopped funding its projects in Russia.

However, three years later, in 2016, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced the necessity for the “selective” resumption of cooperation with Russia in those fields that are mutually beneficial.

Recommended: "Climate change could make Russia vulnerable to security challenges"

Among those fields of potential cooperation, she had in mind climate change, global warming and environmental protection. Thus, Russia and the EU agreed to resume their cooperation within the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for governments with stakes in the Arctic, to protect the region’s flora and fauna and intensify the collaboration between stakeholders.

The Russian and EU authorities also gave the green light to launch environmental protection and preservation projects in the regions of northwestern Russia and northeastern Europe where they shared a common border. Thus, they expect to get off the ground at least five programs, with two of them (that deal with climate change) in the process of implementation. 

The first program aims at protecting the marine environment from pollution by toxic and man-made waste as well as maintaining biodiversity in St. Petersburg, the Leningrad and Kaliningrad regions. Meanwhile, the second one spreads awareness about energy efficiency as a way to deal with climate change and intends to support Russian nongovernmental environmentalists in St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region.   

Geopolitics, casting a long shadow over environmental cooperation

Today, the EU identifies itself as the leader of the environmental movement in the world. However, if the status quo persists, it might be difficult to maintain this image without Russia’s participation, given its heft and environmental protection potential.

For example, it was Russia that ratified the EU-backed Kyoto protocol, which was on the verge of collapse in 2005 due to the reluctance of India, China and the U.S. to ratify the agreement. In fact, it was also a political gesture of solidarity with the European Union, not only a pragmatic move. Thus, in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, the Kremlin was supposed to provide its territory for nuclear waste in exchange for EU investment in Russia’s environmental projects. This, in turn, could encourage Moscow and Brussels to cooperate in other fields. 

Nevertheless, in the case of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, Russia didn’t play a significant role. However, Moscow’s support might have influenced the U.S. and China to sigh the agreement within a six-month period and, thus, accelerated the entire process.

Given the rich experience of Russia and the EU in environmental protection, it could draw them together and be an effective field of “selective cooperation.” The hope is that this could help to alleviate the political confrontation between the two sides.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.