Aidan Kelly, Crude Accountability research intern
The reporting of greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations is a seemingly innocuous, bureaucratic task undertaken annually by all developed nations. However, Russia has utilized emissions reporting as a tool in seeking to legitimize its claims over illegally annexed Ukrainian territory. In today’s blog, we will expand on our discussion of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over emissions reporting, and discuss how the United Nations’ handling of the situation has tacitly lent legitimacy to Russian territorial aggression in Ukraine.
It may seem rather counterintuitive for two nations to be in conflict over who lays claim to an abundance of greenhouse gas emissions; normally one would expect the opposite. But the current situation in Ukraine is far from normal, and so is Russia’s blatant disregard for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
A dispute began in 2016 when Russia first included Crimea’s emissions in its emissions reporting to the United Nations.1 The recent illegal annexation of four additional Ukrainian territories by Russia2 promises to further complicate a formerly dry, bureaucratic process, which has morphed into one with vast geopolitical consequences.
As long as the UN refuses to unequivocally deny Russia’s claims over GHG emissions emanating from Ukrainian territory, the institution will continue to tacitly lend legitimacy to Russian territorial aggression. The precedent that silence on this matter would create could have dangerous ramifications far beyond the borders of Ukraine.
“It’s not about the climate arguments – it’s about our territory”3
The specifics surrounding GHG emissions reporting to the UN were discussed in detail in a separate blog post published by Crude Accountability, so here is a brief rundown. Annually, developed nations such as Russia and Ukraine must submit statistical data regarding their GHG emissions, and their efforts to offset these emissions through any number of climate change mitigation measures. The UN then compiles these national reports into a comprehensive accounting of global emissions; this effort has been on hold since 2017 because of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine.4
The Ukrainian Argument:
As mentioned earlier, the dispute began when Russia claimed Crimea’s emissions in its 2016 report to the UN; Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. To Ukrainians, this move was about far more than climate accounting. It was an attempt, on the part of Russia, to use any international tool it could to legitimize its illegal annexation of Crimea.
If UN member states were to sign off on documents that included Crimea as part of Russia’s territory, this could lead to the normalization of countries using force to threaten the territorial integrity of another. For Ukrainian policy-makers, it is more important to ensure that UN conversations reflect their legal claim over territory that much of the world recognizes as Ukrainian territory, no matter who is occupying it than to have good climate rankings.5
The Russian Argument:
The Russian claim over emissions emanating from Ukrainian territory is predictably weak and baseless. Russia has argued that Crimea and Sevastopol voted to join Russia during a 2014 referendum and are thus a part of the Russian Federation.6 Of course, this referendum was a sham, just as the recent referendums in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts were; they in no way reflect the will of the Ukrainian people.7
At the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June 2022, seen as a precursor to COP 27, the Russian delegation made a call to leave politics out of discussions regarding climate.8 As ridiculous as this statement may seem given the circumstances, the Russians are not the only ones to have made this argument.
The United Nations: Bureaucracy and its Real-World Consequences
UN bureaucrats, since the outset of this conflict over emissions reporting, have in many ways echoed the sentiment that discussions regarding climate should be kept separate from those regarding geopolitics. Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine’s Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, has stated that, in the past, international climate policy-makers have urged Ukraine to separate climate issues from political issues, arguing that an accurate count of global GHG emissions was more important than any dispute between two nations. To Strilets, such discussions emboldened Russia, ultimately leading to its invasion of Ukraine this year.9
The issue at hand is not that the UN has done nothing to combat Russia’s grasp for international legitimacy, but rather that the institution has not done enough. At the outset of this dispute in 2016, Ukraine successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a footnote in Russia’s emissions report, referencing three UN resolutions that support Ukraine’s claim to Crimea. However, this was the only action taken, and ultimately the Russian report including Crimea’s emissions was accepted.10
Such half-measures on the part of the UN and international climate policy-makers can no longer be accepted by any supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty. Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine has proved that discussions of climate and geopolitics cannot and should not be separated. The United Nations must categorically deny any Russian claim to GHG emissions emanating from Ukrainian territory. Continued inaction by UN climate policy-makers will not only prove devastating to Ukraine but also risks setting a precedent that allows the territorial integrity of a nation to be challenged by an aggressor under the guise of climate reporting. Russia’s bad faith actions include its bogus efforts to use the UN for its own gain in its aggression against Ukraine. This practice must be stopped.