TCS Daily

The Road to Milan

By Iain Murray - November 7, 2003 12:00 AM

At the beginning of October, Russian President Vladimir Putin played a "knight's move" on global warming alarmists. Russians -- chess players all -- know the value of the knight, the chess piece that can jump over the opponent's defenses to surprise him, and fond of imitating the knight in their approach to national strategy. At the World Climate Change Conference in Moscow, they surprised the scaremongers and forces opposed to economic growth by not only failing to back the Kyoto treaty, but re-opening the scientific debate over the causes and scope of climate change. The myth of scientific "consensus" on the issue should now be buried once and for all.


Russia was in fact never going to ratify the Kyoto protocol once President Putin had announced his ambition to double Russia's gross domestic product by 2010. The Kyoto protocol seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in certain countries to levels below those seen in 1990. Environmentalists and their political allies had taken it as a given that Russia would ratify Kyoto because, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dismantling of its smokestack industries, Russia's carbon emissions are already below those seen in 1990. They even thought there was a financial incentive for Russia to ratify, because she would be able to sell credits for emissions beyond the targets to countries that could not meet their own targets. They regarded Kyoto as "free money" for Russia.


Yet that line of thinking is fatally flawed, because it assumes Russia would be content to sit mired in its post-Soviet recession, happy to live in a state of dependence on Western industry. Kyoto would pay Russia not to burn oil so that Western industry could continue to do so. Once Putin announced his ambitious growth plans, that assumption would no longer hold. To meet his target, Russian industry will need to be emitting four percent more carbon in 2010 than it was in 1990, with the amount rising further thereafter. Russia would need to buy credits, not sell them.


The President's chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, made it clear that Russia found this unacceptable. He told the conference, "Considering that the Kyoto Protocol is restricting economic growth, we must say it straight that it means dooming the country to poverty, backwardness and weakness." This is not exactly the language one associates with a negotiating position.


While the death knell for Kyoto was chiming, another unworthy aspect of modern environmental wisdom was exposed for the sham it is. We have long been told that only a few fringe scientists dispute that mankind is responsible for most of the recent global warming and that the greenhouse theory that the Earth may warm disastrously is accepted as "scientific consensus." The conference put paid to that argument, with many distinguished Russian scientists expressing their skepticism.


Yuri Izrael, chairman of the conference, started it off by saying, "All the scientific evidence seems to support the same general conclusions, that the Kyoto protocol is ... based on bad science." He was followed by Kirill Kondratiev, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who went as far as to say that the claims of impending apocalypse caused by man's interference with the climate were "inaccurate ... and contrary to the opinions held by most scientists." He even alleged that, "the only people who would be hurt by abandoning the Kyoto protocol would be several thousand people who make a living attending conferences on global warming."


The reaction has been deafening in its silence. The environmental groups clearly do not know how to react. Those that have reacted have tended to dismiss Russia's clearly articulated objections on cynical grounds. Alexander Golub of Environmental Defense, for instance, told one reporter that Putin's comments were simply "a ploy to wrangle increased concessions from the European Union and other governments that favor the Kyoto protocol." It says much that the environmental groups view Russia as a beggar looking to wheedle a few extra dollars out of passers-by laden with environmental guilt rather than as a proud nation with the ambition to make herself wealthy again.


The political reaction has been more interesting, differing in word and deed. The three EU nations with the most invested in the Kyoto process, Britain, France and Germany, issued a joint statement concluding, "There is no credible alternative to [Kyoto] on the table. We call upon Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol." Yet it seems that the fa├žade of EU unity on the subject is cracking. Spain, Greece and Portugal have backed away from a Kyoto-linked deal whereby EU nations would contribute, in proportion to their own emissions, to a €450 million ($523 million) fund to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


The southern nations say they should contribute much less because they are much poorer than their northern neighbors. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is delaying the first reading of a bill designed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions trading, putting at risk a deadline of 2005 for implementing the legislation. Perhaps European nations and legislators are beginning to realize that the writing is on the wall for the Kyoto process, and see no reason to handicap themselves by signing up to the requirements of a dead treaty.


The message may even be getting through to the Kyoto negotiators themselves. Sources suggest that high-level officials preparing for the UNFCC's ninth Conference of the Parties in Milan in December are bowing to the inevitable. The Daily Environment Report reported (Oct. 10) that, "For the first time since its drafting, official discussions will include the possibility of combating climate change without the Kyoto Protocol, although talks will focus more on other issues that include the use and transfer of new technologies, capacity building in developing countries, and sustainable development."


Milan may be the beginning of the endgame for the Kyoto process. Faced with the stern questions Russia has asked, they have little room to maneuver. The result of the knight's move may be checkmate for Kyoto.

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