Green agenda absent from China-Russia partnership “without limits” | News | Eco-Business
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Green agenda absent from China-Russia partnership “without limits” | News | Eco-Business

In May, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first official visit to China in his new term, following a joint statement heralding a “new era” in Sino-Russian relations and marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic ties.

The document underscored the deepening “no-holds-barred” partnership between the two nations, announced during Putin’s state visit in February 2022, and cemented by economic interests and mutual distrust of the West – especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The joint statement was conspicuously absent of a green agenda, including clean energy development and other climate action. This omission is surprising at a time when China is strategically putting green issues at the forefront of its diplomacy.

References to climate change in the statement are lukewarm, with an emphasis on countries’ “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate action under the UN climate convention and the Paris Agreement.

The only direct mention of a “green transformation” appeared in the context of the Asia-Pacific region and was not supported by any specific proposals.

In addition, the joint statement includes a bipartisan opposition to linking climate issues to international threats to peace and security, signaling a lack of seriousness in addressing climate threats. References to renewable energy were sparse and couched in vague language about deepening cooperation.

And President Xi Jinping’s European tour the same month, which included visits to Hungary, Serbia and France, showcased China’s green diplomacy and led to significant developments. Leading Chinese carmaker BYD opened its first European electric vehicle plant in Hungary. $2.1 billion was invested in Serbia’s renewable energy sector. And green development was one of 18 cooperation agreements signed between China and France.

Engaging in climate action, particularly through initiatives focused on green technologies, is increasingly central to China’s global diplomatic charm offensive. But when it comes to Russia, climate action may be the weakest link in a supposedly unfettered relationship. Why is this happening, and what are the implications?

Hydrocarbon binding

A plausible interpretation of the sparse focus on climate in the Sino-Russian joint statement is that environmental issues are subordinate to the strategic imperative of countering U.S. influence. The document emphasizes “core interests” (English: 根本利益, the same as the same) of the Chinese and Russian nations.

Deeply rooted in this alliance are mutual distrust of American power, shared material interests in trade in fossil fuels and military technology, and ideals about the virtues of authoritarian political regimes pursuing state-directed development agendas.

One of the “core interests” of China and Russia is trade in hydrocarbons, oil, coal and natural gas, which has brought economic security to Russia and energy security to China. The political repercussions of the invasion of Ukraine have seriously affected Russia’s traditional energy market in Europe.

Pipeline gas and oil deliveries have fallen by more than 80 percent, while coal exports have all but ceased after the EU imposed a ban on new Russian coal purchases. Gazprom, the Kremlin-owned gas company, saw its natural gas deliveries to Europe fall by 55.6 percent in 2023, leading to a significant financial loss of almost $7 billion.

Russia turned to other markets to make up for lost revenue. Sino-Russian trade rose to a new record of $240 billion in 2023, driven by China’s increased consumption of Russian hydrocarbons. China received a third of the increase in Russian oil shipments between 2021 and 2023, while LNG and coal exports nearly doubled over the same period. In 2023, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia to become China’s largest source of oil imports.

No amount of greenwashing can hide the fact that China and Russia have significant trade in fossil fuels. The lack of climate ambition in May’s joint statement can be explained by the fact that it is part of China’s efforts to increase energy security by importing cheap Russian fossil fuel.

Mismatched climate commitment

The lack of climate considerations also highlights divergent positions and leadership on environmental issues, climate change, and decarbonization goals. As recently as 2019, Putin still claimed that “nobody knows the real cause of climate change” and that determining how human activity affects it is “very difficult, if not impossible.”

Worse, in a 2023 update of its 2009 climate doctrine, the Kremlin removed language that human activity is “primarily related” to emissions “from the combustion of fossil fuels.” With fossil fuels at the center of its energy strategy, Russia’s renewable energy goals and current share fall below 5 percent. This undermines the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious 1.5°C goal.

On the other hand, China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has become a leader in green technology. For example, the country accounts for more than 80 percent of the global supply chain for solar equipment.

President Xi’s enthusiastic embrace of “ecological civilization” in 2017 laid the groundwork for China’s “dual carbon” goals, aiming to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve neutrality by 2060. Projections suggest that China’s CO2 emissions are set to fall in 2024, driven by a significant increase in low-carbon installations. For the first time, non-fossil fuel energy sources will exceed 50 percent of China’s total generating capacity in 2023.

Xi’s slogan, “green mountains are mountains of gold and silver mountains,” exemplifies the dual approach to protecting the environment and promoting economic development. Beijing, unlike Moscow, has succeeded in making renewable energy a pillar of its economy, establishing a solid low-carbon industrial sector. With clean energy sectors expected to contribute 40 percent to China’s GDP growth in 2023, they have become a key driver of the country’s economic expansion.

In terms of exercising global leadership, China and the US have created a new framework for their climate commitments with the 2023 Sunnylands Statement. This reportedly enabled the final formulation of the UN COP28 climate conference to be adopted, on “transitioning away from fossil fuels”. While COP28 was held in the United Arab Emirates, Putin was there to strengthen OPEC+ cooperation and further discuss trade and oil. The contrast was striking.

Passage separately

The lack of a green agenda risks undermining Sino-Russian relations in the medium term. China’s renewable energy infrastructure will reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies, putting at risk the two countries’ hydrocarbon trade relations.

Although China’s demand for oil and gas has grown steadily in recent decades, the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2023 found that China’s use of fossil fuels will peak in 2024 before entering a slow structural decline. Putin’s long-awaited Power of Siberia 2 pipeline is set to transport 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Russia to China.

The project would offset almost half of the decline in Russian gas exports via pipelines to the EU between 2021 and 2023, but has been ignored by Beijing during recent visits. Beijing’s deliberate silence on the proposed pipeline is aimed at negotiating better pricing terms and supply chain control with an impatient Moscow.

However, the continued development of clean technology, including batteries, will reduce China’s dependence on fossil fuels in Russia. China’s rapid development of batteries will improve energy storage on the grid, easing the problem of curtailment (or waste) of renewable energy.

Advanced battery technology will also lead to more durable electric vehicles and greater use of new-energy vehicles, which will reduce the oil consumption of passenger cars. In addition, China’s ambition to expand its renewable energy reach into neighboring countries such as Mongolia, where Power of Siberia 2 will be built and developed, could become a sore point in Sino-Russian relations.

Despite Russia’s modest share of renewables and its nascent coal market, there is scope for cooperation in hydrogen energy, using Russia’s natural gas reserves. A blue hydrogen project on Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia is actively seeking Chinese investment, after striking a deal with a Chinese energy equipment supplier to export technology and hydrogen to China. But as China builds up its domestic hydrogen capacity, the extent of its enthusiasm for cooperation remains uncertain.

Another source of clean energy is nuclear power, which accounts for more than 19 percent of Russia’s electricity production. Putin mentioned the sector during his visit, but it did not appear in the joint statement.

Last year, China and Russia signed an agreement to deepen cooperation in nuclear energy, especially in the development of fast reactors and the production of uranium-plutonium fuel. According to the China Aerospace Studies Institute, “nuclear energy is a rare area in which Russia still plays a more important role.”

There is no doubt that the “borderless” friendship between Russia and China is deeply rooted in geopolitics, political strategy, and hydrocarbon trade. However, the countries’ different positions on climate change and the resulting gap in their partnership represent a potential weakness and limitation in the relationship.

This article was originally published on Dialogue Earth under a Creative Commons license.