Russia will seek sanctions relief on green investment projects for state-run energy giants such as Gazprom at next month’s COP26 climate summit, as it comes under growing pressure to join a commitment to slash methane emissions.

“We are being urged to reduce methane leakages and yet we have Gazprom under sanctions,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s climate envoy, Ruslan Edelgeriyev, said in an interview Wednesday at the annual Valdai Club meeting in Sochi. “Let’s take climate projects out of sanctions, so that Gazprom has access to green financing, access to technologies.” 

Amid surging Covid-19 infections at home, Putin has opted not to travel to Glasgow for the summit. Edelgeriyev said he had pursued the sanctions exemption proposal with U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, as well as at a pre-COP ministerial meeting earlier this month. “If we want to reduce emissions, then climate projects should not be sanctioned wherever they are - in Russia, Iran, Turkey, in America, in Britain,” he said.

Edelgeriyev didn’t elaborate on what specific sanctions he was referring to. Gazprom itself isn’t subject to the kind of sweeping financial restrictions that some other Russian energy giants are, though it does face limits on access to technology, goods and services related to oil production in some areas.

He indicated Russia could accept more ambitious climate goals if it gets what it wants at the summit. Its position underlines the difficulty of isolating climate change negotiations from wider geopolitical disputes, something the U.S. has repeatedy said it wants to do. Gazprom was among entities sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Yet Europe is also looking to the gas giant to help ease an energy crunch that’s sent prices soaring, a crisis Putin has blamed in part on what he called a hasty EU switch to renewable sources. Russia’s now pressing for regulators to rapidly certify operation of its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany to boost supplies, a project the U.S. has relentlessly opposed.

Edelgeriyev said he isn’t calling for a wholesale lifting of sanctions, and that a special working group would decide what projects qualify. But if climate projects were exempted, he said, nations that find it difficult and expensive to meet their climate obligations could do so by investing in emissions reduction projects in Russia.

“We have had conflicts, we have conflicts and we will go on having conflicts, but the climate doesn’t care,” Edelgeriyev said, accusing Western states of double standards, including on Nord Stream 2 which he said would help Germany burn less coal and cut methane emissions as a new pipeline that’s less leaky than existing transit routes. Opponents say the pipeline is a political project designed to make the current transit route via Ukraine obsolete.

“Russia is open, but Russia will not take unequal steps,” Edelgeriyev said, acknowledging that many new initiatives had worthy goals, but only if the countries calling for them will do what it takes to reach them. He cited the example of a $100 billion per year fund to pay for climate measures, a pledge developed economies have failed to meet for a decade.

Methane Pledge

“Until there is an equal partnership Russia will not move, because we were deceived many times,” Edelgeriyev said. “And it cost us a lot.”

The U.S. and the EU are pushing for nations to join a Global Methane Pledge at COP26 to cut emissions of a component of natural gas that has more than 80 times the global-warming power of carbon dioxide. Russia hasn’t indicated if it will sign.

Edelgeriyev, a former prime minister of Russia’s Chechnya republic, said a suggestion Putin made in April for an international satellite system to create commonly agreed data on methane emissions has gone without response. Without transparent accounting methods, Moscow will be reluctant to sign up to the initiative to cut global methane emissions 30% by 2030.

What’s seen in the West as a cheap and easy way to cut greenhouse gas emissions would be extremely difficult for Russia, requiring the reversal of an energy strategy for production growth that implies higher, rather than lower methane emissions, he said.

Russia has shifted its position on global climate talks from deep skepticism to engagement in the past year. That’s largely because an EU plan to establish a carbon border tax threatened to damage the competitiveness of Russian exports, according to Konstantin Simonov, who heads the National Energy Security Fund, a state-funded think tank in Moscow.

A once marginal domestic climate change debate also has begun to grow. Russian climate scientists addressing the Sochi conference painted a bleak picture of the likely impact global warming will have, melting the permafrost covering 65% of Russian territory, moving arable lands north, collapsing buildings and infrastructure, reducing soil fertility and increasing the danger period for forest fires by up to 50 days per year in some regions.

Yet as the world’s largest energy exporter, Russia also remains suspicious of efforts to force the pace on a green transition that it sees as stacked to benefit others, according to Simonov. Russia is being asked to shut down gas plants so it can switch to wind farms and other green technologies it would have to import. 

“We understand we have to do something, but do what?” Simonov said. “We are going to have to have a very honest debate with the West about the terms of the fight against climate change.”

That includes the potential use by Russian companies of carbon credits from the nation’s vast forests to pay carbon border taxes, something the EU’s current plans would rule out. Similarly the inclusion of nuclear energy, hydroelectric power and so-called blue hydrogen – made using natural gas – as green sources of energy, a question with broad implications for Russian companies and export revenues.

All of those questions have the potential to divide Russia from the EU and some other nations not just over climate science, but also over commercial and national interests, according to Simonov, who once advocated tying sanctions relief to climate action but sees it as a hopeless task.

Putin has set a goal for Russia to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and further commitments at COP26 “will depend on the international situation,” said Edelgeriyev. “These two things don’t get along, sanctions and climate.”