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Activists sue Russia over ‘weak’ climate policy
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Activists sue Russia over ‘weak’ climate policy

A group of activists are fighting for the right to scrutinise Russia’s climate policies, and in particular its enormous methane emissions, in court.

Russia’s constitutional court is considering a claim brought by 18 individuals and the NGO Ecodefense that insufficient action by the Russian state to cut national greenhouse gas emissions is violating their rights to life, health and a healthy environment.

Another organisation that had planned to join the case, Moscow Helsinki, was closed down last year by a different Russian court. It was the country’s oldest human rights group.

The claimants previously asked Russia’s supreme court to examine national climate policy, but it refused to take on the case. They then took a fresh claim to the constitutional court, which is responsible for upholding the country’s constitution. The court has decided some environmental cases in the past, including state liability for the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, but it has not yet dealt with climate breakdown.

“We are insisting in this case that the current climate policy of Russia is too weak and can’t protect us against the most catastrophic consequences of climate change,” said Vladimir Slivyak from Ecodefense.

One of those bringing the case is Arshak Makichyan, who has previously been jailed in Russia after taking part in climate protests and who now lives in Germany. He said the lawsuit was about the contradiction between Russia’s climate policy and its constitution.

Russia is one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. The government has set a target to achieve net zero by 2060 but has done little to achieve this, leading Climate Action Tracker (CAT) to call its efforts “critically insufficient”.

Russia’s energy strategy focuses almost exclusively on extracting, consuming and exporting fossil fuels, and its climate plans rely heavily on national forests taking up twice as much carbon as they do today. “No information substantiates such an enormous increase of carbon take-up,” says CAT. “It also doesn’t appear to address the impact of enormous wildfires in its Siberian forests in recent years.”

Russia is close to the host of the next climate talks, Azerbaijan, which has defended investment in oil and gas.

The claimants say Russia’s climate plans are scientifically unsubstantiated and ineffective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and they argue the plans should be significantly tightened to be in line with the Paris agreement.

Part of the claim focuses on Russia’s role as the world’s biggest source of methane from fossil fuel extraction. Russian gas infrastructure is notoriously leaky and is responsible for a significant proportion of super-emitting leaks. Makichyan noted that Russia had no targets at all for reducing methane emissions.

There have been few lawsuits to date that focus on short-lived but hugely potent climate pollutants such as methane, but academics expect more litigation on this topic in the future.

Russia is particularly vulnerable to climate breakdown and its average temperatures having risen twice as fast as the global average. The lawsuit outlines how some of the claimants who live in large Russian cities have been affected by heatwaves and severe air pollution due to forest fires.

As the climate crisis intensifies, Russia can expect more frequent and intense heatwaves, drought and extreme rainfall. This spring there were unusually severe floods in the Ural mountains and Siberia, forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

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According to the lawsuit, young and Indigenous people in particular are being discriminated against. It says Indigenous communities such as the Sámi could lose traditional food sources such as venison, fish and berries, putting their health and wellbeing at risk. Melting permafrost, floods and other extreme weather events will increase their exposure to disease and water contamination from toxic waste.

Andrei Danilov, the director of the Sámi Heritage and Development Foundation, who is another claimant in the case, said hunting and fishing times were already changing.

“With the disappearance of deer, fish and game, our lives change,” he said. “It’s not just a way of life. Our language, our culture directly depends on it.”

Danilov previously won a case in the constitutional court upholding the rights of Indigenous people to hunt to maintain a traditional lifestyle. But he has since left Russia, where he said the authorities “did not like my insistence on protecting constitutional rights”, and is seeking political asylum in Norway.

Makichyan said he did not have much hope that the case would succeed but it was “a helpful instrument to raise awareness about Russian climate policies”.

The claimants would have to exhaust all domestic legal options to have a case considered at the European court of human rights, which recently ruled that states were breaching the rights of their citizens by failing to do enough to cut national emissions. Although Russia no longer recognises the European court’s jurisdiction, the court does have power to scrutinise its actions before September 2022.

The Russian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Source: theguardian.com