How the United States and Russia can work together to battle climate change

How cooperation in the Arctic – and beyond – can help slow the impacts of climate change.

With temperatures rising at twice the global annual average rate, the effects of climate change have been felt more intensely in the Arctic than in any other place in the world. These rising temperatures have had a marked effect on the Arctic environment as well. The rise in temperatures as a result of global warming have led to a decline of Arctic sea ice at a staggering rate of 13.1% per decade. With an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources that could soon be exposed due to melting ice caps, additional commercial and political dimensions further complicate the situation in the Arctic.

The region’s untapped energy resources and its rapidly changing environment due to the effects of climate change have made it of great geopolitical and economic interest to the great powers. The Arctic is set to become the next stage for great power competition within geopolitics – namely with China, Russia, and the United States being the major players in the region.

A substantial number of reports on the Arctic suggest the possibility of a “new Cold War” developing in the region, drawing parallels between U.S.-Russia relations today with those of the Soviet Union and the United States. While recent increases in militarization and certain geopolitical parallels, these accusations fail to consider the common interests that Russia and the U.S. share to combat climate change in the Arctic. While climate change has increasingly been interpreted as a threat multiplier – that is, something accelerates instability and conflict – cooperation as its result should not be discounted.

Under the Trump Administration, the United States took a hawkish stance on its dealings in the Arctic with Russia, such as refusing to sign Arctic Council documents that called for climate protections. However, attempting to further distance himself from the previous administration, U.S. President Joe Biden has signaled his desire to pivot away from this harsh position.

In fact, in an interview, First Deputy Secretary of the Russian Security Council Yuri Averyanov, even claimed that “the Arctic is one of few fields where Russia and the USA successfully manage to have a dialogue on a decent level.”, a sentiment echoed by many U.S. policymakers. At June’s bilateral summit in Geneva, both President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on the need for cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic.

Along with climate policy in the Arctic being one of the most feasible realms for collaboration between the United States and Russia on the climate, it is one in which their interests generally align and heavily favor cooperation. Both the U.S. and especially Russia have substantial economic interests in the region. Conflict and destabilization are counterproductive to both countries’ economic stakes in the Arctic.

With Russia receiving the rotating chairship of the Arctic Council this past May, the Kremlin will possess significant influence in shaping the Council. This presents a unique opportunity to usher in a new era of cooperation between the United States and Russia in the Arctic.

One of the most promising areas for U.S.-Russia collaboration in the Arctic is expanding Russia’s use of renewable energy in the region. Recently, Aleksey Chekunkov, the Russian minister of development in the Arctic and Far East, stated that the Russian government believes LNG, or liquified natural gas, to be the best option for Russia in the current status quo.

While LNG is cleaner than oil or coal and its use would assuredly lead to a significant improvement on emissions originating from the Arctic, collaboration with the United States could be the key to implementing more renewable sources of energy in the region. Russian companies in the Arctic do not have a current economic incentive to transition to renewable energy, largely as a result of technological constraints.

Many of these Russian companies do not possess as advanced energy technologies as other Arctic Council member states, such as the United States, do. This opens a window for the United States to assist Russia with developing renewable energy technologies in the Artic and catch up to other Arctic Council members. In addition to expanding Russia’s renewable energy infrastructure, the inevitable strengthening of ties between businesses that would result from collaboration on technological development would also improve the economic partnership between the United States and Russia.

While the Arctic is currently at the forefront of joint efforts between the United States and Russia to combat climate change, it is not the only area where cooperation is possible. Recently, leaders of both countries have also expressed a shared interest in reducing carbon emissions. At the Leaders’ Summit on Climate, which was organized by the U.S., President Putin called for international cooperation on climate change, suggesting looking towards joint international projects and technology sharing. At the same summit, President Biden echoed Putin’s sentiments and further noted interest in collaboration on carbon dioxide removal projects and limiting emissions with Russia.

While some analysts believed Russia would fall short of following through with Putin’s stated goals to limit emissions, Russia has taken steps to show their commitment. Earlier this month, President Putin signed legislation that will require companies to report emissions and limit emissions over 150,000 tons of CO2. Not only does this symbolize a step forward in Russian domestic climate policy, but also serves as a signal of their commitment, further setting Russia up as a viable partner for the United States to cooperate with.

Whether in the Arctic or elsewhere in the world, Russia and the United States share common ground on their interests in combatting climate change, which should not be ignored. As climate change shows no sign of slowing down, especially not without intervention, it is imperative that countries such as the U.S. and Russia take active steps to reduce its impacts. Rather than climate being a source of rising geopolitical tensions, partnerships on climate issues would not just take steps to battle the impacts of climate change, but usher in a new age of U.S.-Russia cooperation and mutual understanding.

Alana Cross is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).