How the Climate Agenda Will Change Our Lives

Climate change, which only recently seemed to be an issue for a small group of scientists and environmentalists, has become a universal concern. We showed in the first two parts of the Climate and Politics project that climate issues are now on the agenda of both politicians and business people. The third part is devoted to the impact of climate change and the fight against it on the transformation of societies.

The summer of 2010 broke temperature records almost every day in Russia. On July 28, the temperature in Oymyakon, Yakutia, considered a northern pole of cold, soared to 34.6°Celsius. On August 1, a heatwave raised the temperature in Volgograd to a record-high 41.1°C. Weather forecasters said it was the first such heatwave in thousands of years. People in the Moscow Region were choking on smoke from peatbog fires, while forest fires in central Russia left thousands of people homeless and droughts destroyed 25 percent of the grain harvest across Russia. The death rate surged: official data put the number of heat-related fatalities in Russia at some 55,000 people, out of which 11,000 died in Moscow. According to a 2016 report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Belgian Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), the unusual 2010 heatwave in Russia was one of the deadliest natural disasters over the past 20 years.

By that time, global warming had long become a household phrase, but the general public continued to think that the climate was a concern for scientists and environmentalists. Awareness of the problem only grew after the so-called Climategate email controversy in November 2009, when a server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) was hacked by an external attacker, who copied thousands of CRU emails and computer files to various internet locations. Climate change denialists claimed the emails showed that global warming was a conspiracy among scientists, who manipulated climate data to scare the general public in the interests of certain quarters. Although it was later established that there was no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct in the emails, the scandal only strengthened the denialists’ scepticism, including in Russia, where some people even assumed that global warming would benefit the country, opening up new transport routes in the Arctic, simplifying access to mineral resources, and reducing heating costs.

When there are mountains of garbage everywhere, people see that this is bad and who is to blame. Climate is a different matter altogether. The awareness stage takes much longer.

Alexei Kokorin, head of the Climate and Energy Programme at WWF Russia.

The 2010 heatwave changed Russians’ attitude to global warming, says Alexei Kokorin, head of the Climate and Energy Programme at WWF Russia. Climate change denialism did not disappear overnight, of course, but people really did feel that something was badly wrong with the climate. The climate agenda entered the general discourse. What is happening to the climate? How much of the change is the result of our mindless interference? Can we prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences?

It takes time to become fully aware of the significance of climate change, Kokorin noted. “Just look at the problem of garbage. Thirty years ago, nobody as much as turned a head when somebody threw an empty bottle out of a speeding train. Twenty years ago, we sensed that this was wrong, but continued to do so. Ten years ago, we stopped doing this. It is obviously a positive trend. Its progress is taking much longer than it could, theoretically, but at least there is a degree of progress. The reason is clear: when there are mountains of garbage everywhere, people see that this is bad and who is to blame. Climate is a different matter altogether. The awareness stage takes much longer. First people must understand that climate change is bad rather than good. We are coming to see its negative aspects, including because of the heatwave. The awareness period is over.”

The next stage involves becoming aware of humanity’s role. Properly speaking, there was no direct connection between human activity and the catastrophic 2010 heatwave. Scientists attribute the anomaly to a blocking anticyclone (“blocking high”) over Eurasia, which raged at a height of over 16 km for more than 50 days. The anticyclone itself was the result of an unusual hike in ocean temperature in the North Atlantic and the Arctic, as well as the La Niña event in the equatorial part of the Pacific Ocean. “It was absolutely unusual that hot air was driven from so far away at such a great height, and so we cannot say for sure that humanity was to blame. However, its results showed the people what life would be like in the future, when heatwaves will be more frequent and intense,” Kokorin said.

What is humanity’s role in climate change? According to Kokorin: “It is dominant in the 21st century.” As for its role this year, “the answer is none.” It is rather difficult to understand that humanity’s role is dominant in the long term and almost invisible in each particular year. Therefore, the correct answer to a question about the man-made or natural causes of the heatwave is: “It is the anthropogenic build-up of a natural process.”

Generation gap

On August 20, 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, began a personal climate strike. Her initiative soon grew into the Fridays for Future movement of weekly school strikes for climate, which hundreds of her peers around the world joined. In December, Greta was invited to the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, where she met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The Swedish teenager became the most recognisable face of the climate movement. She met with international leaders and was showered with honours and awards because she managed to attract humanity’s attention to the dangers of climate change.

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Of course, this was not due to her charisma and enthusiasm alone. Greta wrote on her Facebook account in February 2019 that the idea of a school strike was suggested by climate activist Bo Thoren, and in September, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a story about Greta’s ascent to the status of a global climate leader and “the Greta Thunberg network.” According to the story, the network includes, apart from Bo Thoren, founder of the green social network startup Ingmar Rentzhog, climate change professor at Uppsala University Kevin Anderson, Monaco businessman and the nephew of Prince Albert of Monaco Pierre Casiraghi, and, of course, Greta’s parents Svante Thunberg and Malena Ernman, who are unusual people themselves. Malena abandoned her international opera career to stop travelling by air, and Svante, an actor, left the theatre to take care of his two daughters, both of them with Asperger syndrome.

Bo Thoren admitted that it was largely Greta’s diagnosis that helped him attain his long-time goal: mobilising young people to fight climate change. He said he had a few ideas and she had dedication, adding that ordinary people would not have gone as far as they had.

So, the teenagers’ climate movement has influential adult allies, who provide professional, organisational and financial assistance. Are these adults using the Greta phenomenon to promote their own interests? There is no proof that any organisational or financial interests lie behind Greta Thunberg, Jyllands-Posten writes. Most likely, she became a symbol by chance, and only after that received support from numerous like-minded people and organisations.

Anyway, none of this rules out the legitimate concern which Greta has expressed in her specific manner. It has become the cause of the younger generation, which has demonstrated its huge potential for promoting the climate agenda.

“I have talked with members of the Fridays for Future movement, including in Russia. My conclusion is that they are not hired feet. They would accept money had it been given to them, but nobody has offered any. It is really a cry from the heart,” Kokorin said. It is a cry born of the fear of an impending global catastrophe, which Greta has expressed so poignantly.

According to Igor Makarov, head of the School of World Economy and the Laboratory for Economics of Climate Change at HSE University, the struggle against climate change is the most obvious part of the general demand for change in a world of ineffective governments created during the post-war industrial age. “The real problem is that the Western elites are unable to find solutions to the problems facing them: inequality, the decline of social mobility, the ageing population and de-industrialisation,” he says. “The younger generation understands that they will be worse off than their parents and demands a new development model.” It is obvious that the energy and enthusiasm of the rising generation of climate activists are catalysing change. Only time will tell if this will yield any results, but there is no doubt that the businesses and governments interested in promoting the green economy will try to take advantage of this movement.

Ethical consumption

Consumerism is one of the modern evils Greta Thunberg criticises. Reducing personal consumption is a way to slow down global warming, climate activists say. This view is shared by experts as well. “To be able to fight climate change, the development of new technology must be complemented with changes in consumer behaviour, the introduction of reasonable sufficiency elements and a luxury surcharge tax,” Igor Makarov argues. Changing consumer behaviour could be more difficult than introducing green technology. Companies have long seen that a transition to the green economy offers numerous opportunities for profit, but people still view a high level of consumption as proof of a high quality of life. The rapid growth of the middle class in China and India has been accompanied by the explosive growth of energy consumption and hence emissions. “The craving for unrestrained consumption, a form of prestige in the rising economies, contradicts the goal of restraining global warming,” Alexei Kokorin notes.

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There is one more aspect of an ethical dilemma in addition to prestige considerations. In 2010, Greta Thunberg’s compatriot Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and statistician, spoke about the magic washing machine effect in a TED talk. He split the world into four categories depending on access to the boons of civilisation and analysed their electricity consumption levels. At that time, the richest one billion “air people” living above the “air line” spent more than $80 a day, made enough for airplane travel, and accounted for half of the world’s energy consumption. The poorest two billion “fire people” lived below the poverty line on less than $1 a day, had no access to electricity, and accounted for 8 percent of worldwide energy use. The three billion “bulb people” had access to electricity and consumed 25 percent of energy, and one billion “washer people” could buy basic household equipment and consumed 17 percent of energy. According to Rosling, as the result of economic growth coupled with population growth, energy consumption by the “air people” will grow to 54 percent by 2050 and by the “washer people” to 27 percent, provided the share of fossil fuel in energy generation does not change.

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The explosive development of consumer society leads to an increasing risk of various disasters throughout the world by creating a systemic imbalance in the interaction between man and nature. Some sociologists believe that the global society has moved from a state of industrial modernisation to what they call a “risk society”. If the chains of events leading to natural disasters become the norm, rather than accidents, the concept of sustainable development loses its meaning. Will the future of humanity only get worse?


The magic of the washing machine is its ability to free millions of women from ineffective and time-consuming labour. Thanks to the washing machine, “Mother got time to read for me. ... This is where I started my career as a professor,” Rosling said. As of 2010, five billion people continued to do their laundry by hand, just as Rosling’s Swedish mother and grandmother did in the early 1950s.

In other words, increased energy consumption as the result of the growing share of the “washer people” is more ethical than increased energy consumption by a growing number of the “air people.” This means that the bulk of responsibility for reducing energy consumption lies with the richest one billion. Greta Thunberg and her followers hail this radical formula, demanding that the richest people do whatever it takes, including reducing their personal consumption, to bring down greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

It is true that the richest societies account for a disproportionately large share of emissions per capita. Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty wrote in a study of trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions, Carbon and inequality: From Kyoto to Paris (2015), that each North American and Western European emits 22.5 and 13.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) a year, while the world’s average is 6.2 tonnes and the sustainable level is 1.3 tonnes. However, emission levels also differ within rich societies: the volume of annual emissions by the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans is around 300 tonnes of CO2e.

This figure includes the following elements. According to Chancel and Piketty, a rich American travelling five times a year from New York to Los Angeles (round trips, first class) emits up to 35 tonnes of CO2e, and the carbon footprint of their car trips and household energy consumption equals 10 tonnes of CO2e each. The remaining 250 tonnes of CO2e is the footprint of the producers of the goods and services they consume a year.

Chancel and Piketty have established that global inequality in terms of the carbon footprint is as large as income inequality. The poorer half of the world’s population accounts for 13 percent of emissions. Out of the remaining 87 percent, the carbon footprint of the world’s richest 10 percent equals 45 percent, and the medium-income 40 percent account for 42 percent of emissions.

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This approach offers ground for rethinking the role of individual countries in global warming. The top three emitters (both in terms of production and consumption) are China, the United States and India. The Americans hold the top place among the richest 10 percent of emitters, the Chinese lead in the 40 percent group of the medium-income population, and India is the number one emitter among the poorest 50 percent of the global population. In Rosling’s terms, the “air people” account for the bulk of emissions in the United States, while the “washer people” have the largest carbon footprint in China and India.

Many people believe that the future international system of climate change regulations should take this inequality into account. For example, in 2020 HSE experts published a report suggesting that different regulatory instruments should be used for different income groups – from early warning measures for deciles which only approach the middle-class level to a full-fledged climate tax for the wealthy strata. “Under such a system of measures, taxes on consumption by wealthy social groups could be the main source of funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation worldwide,” the authors write. Whether it is accepted or not, this approach will definitely be controversial, just as any other initiative aimed at social equality.

Life amid the pandemic: A blueprint for the future?

In 2020, the volume of emissions from transport, which has one of the largest carbon footprints, has plummeted as the result of the coronavirus lockdown in the majority of countries. By April 7, emissions from ground transport decreased by 36 percent and from aviation by as much as 60 percent. The decline in daily CO2 emissions in the aviation sector was unprecedented. Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Finnish Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), pointed out that neither the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 nor the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption a decade ago “had as dramatic an impact on global aviation volumes … as the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.”

Although flights have ten times smaller carbon footprint than ground transport, climate activists have directed their attacks at aviation’s environmental performance. One of the reasons is an increase in its emissions (by 26.3 percent in 2013 ̶ 2018 in the EU alone) due to a growing number of flights. According to ICAO forecasts, aviation emissions will increase fourfold by 2050 unless additional measures are taken to prevent this, such as a conversion to biofuel and technical upgrades. However, the coronavirus pandemic has created a new reality by provoking an aviation crisis.

One of its features is the absence of cheap flights. An end to EUR 10 tickets was predicted even before the pandemic. In 2018, Sweden introduced an eco-friendly air travel tax. France and Germany followed suit in 2020, and the Netherlands is considering a similar measure. In November 2019, nine EU countries called for introducing an EU aviation carbon tax to encourage people to use alternative modes of transport, primarily trains. Domestic air fares are expected to see a sharp spike.

A decrease in the volumes of air passenger traffic amid the pandemic, the social distancing requirement in planes and, of course, the financing problem this has created for the air carriers will inevitably increase the cost of air travel. It will be a heavy blow to people in such countries as Russia, who have had no time to enjoy flying with low-cost airlines. But this is the new reality in which the effects of the pandemic turned out to be fully in line with the governments’ long-term policies based on environmental considerations.

These tectonic shifts in the aviation sector have overshadowed the ongoing transformation of the automobile market. Automobiles with internal combustion engines (ICE vehicles), which comprise 95 percent of the global car fleet, account for as much as 75 percent of the carbon footprint of the transport sector. But changes are underway, and they will only accelerate in the next few years. In 2019, the share of new battery electric vehicles (BEV) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) reached 56 percent of the car sales market in Norway. There have been persistent rumours in the past few years of Norway’s plans to prohibit the sale of ICE vehicles, which politicians duly refuted. But the situation on the car market shows that the country may not need to adopt any laws. Several other countries are talking about converting to “clean engine vehicles” by 2030, including China, which already has the world’s largest fleet of electric vehicles.

Is Russia ready to do the same? A KPMG survey shows that it is not: Russia holds 23rd place among the 25 countries it assessed for electric car readiness. The rating is based on three main criteria: technology and innovation, infrastructure, and public preparedness. Russia holds last place for technology and innovation and next to last for infrastructure development (an insufficient number of charging stations, plus bad roads) and people’s readiness to buy and use electric vehicles (too expensive). According to Vygon Consulting, medium electric vehicles in Russia cost approximately 750,000 roubles more than comparable ICE vehicles.  However, the cost will pay off within five years of travelling upwards of 45,000 km a year through saving on fuel and engine maintenance. This means that electric cars have competitive potential, above all, in the taxi and car-sharing segments: Vygon Consulting experts believe that electric cars will start taking over the market in the next two or three years. A zero tax on electric cars imported into EAEU countries, which is effective until December 31, 2021, can convince Russian consumers to start using electric vehicles.

Transport is not the only segment with impending changes under the climate agenda. We have already cited the opinion of Alexei Kokorin that Russians became aware of the garbage problem relatively quickly. But garbage is not only about the quality of life; it is also a factor of climate change, and not only because dumping grounds are a source of methane emissions and because we are burning unsorted rubbish. Greenhouse gas emissions from the primary industry can be greatly reduced through the production of recycled goods from segregated waste. People’s environmental awareness is growing. An early 2019 survey by VCIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Centre) showed that 27 percent of respondents sorted trash and 47 percent would do so if conditions were available. Only 11 percent said they would not do this.

A reform of the Russian solid waste sector was launched in 2017, but segregated waste collection had been introduced in several Russian cities long before that. The system was introduced in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, back in 2012, whereas it became obligatory in Moscow only on January 1, 2020. Anyway, Russia has had much less time to adopt an ecologically-safe waste management system than Western European countries, which started down this path in the late 1980s. By the way, the shortage of recyclables due to the underdeveloped segregated waste collection system has forced Russia to import plastic waste.

The food sector is one more sphere where the climate agenda will play a greater role. Like short-haul domestic flights, ICE vehicles and dumping grounds, meat production is increasingly often described as an environmentally unfriendly sector. It accounts for 14.5 percent of emissions, where one-third is methane produced by livestock. Some climate activists believe that meat and other animal products are among the main threats to the planet. There are the traditional ethical and the new environmental arguments for eating less meat. However, a meat-free era is not around the corner yet, if only because millions of people employed in the livestock industry would have to learn new trades. In addition, the grazing industry is the predominant lifestyle in the arid regions where high farming is difficult or impossible.

Cows account for over 75 percent of methane emissions in the livestock industry. From the climate perspective, your ribeye steak is more unethical than your neighbour’s lamb kabob. According to the FAO, the GHG emissions in beef production amount to 2,495 million tCO2e, which is 3.7 times larger than in pork production, 4 times more than in poultry breeding, and 5.3 times more than in lamb production. But the carbon footprint of the beef sector can and should be reduced. Industrialised countries are introducing methane-reducing technology, which the potential consumer need not know about (what the eye doesn’t see…). Ultimately, the cattle breeding sector is vulnerable to climate change and should be interested in moderating it. 

We have covered only some aspects of the climate agenda for the next few years. The practices that were voluntary only recently will soon become recommended and then mandatory. Government policies, company strategies and public mentality will shape a new reality, the contours of which are slowly emerging.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.