TCS Daily

Russia's Vacillations on Kyoto

By Hans H.J. Labohm - May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

For more than a year the Kremlin has been dithering about signing the Kyoto Protocol, which aims at curbing CO2 emissions in order to counter purported man-made global warming. During that period many prominent Russian opponents of Kyoto have amply aired their objections against the Treaty. After the recent Russia/EU summit, however, President Putin announced on May 21 that Russia would join Kyoto after all.

Russia's surprising u-turn on Kyoto has administered a severe blow to the worldwide opposition against Kyoto, which believes that the Protocol is a political "solution" for a non-existent problem. Until recently it was assumed that the Kremlin would resist joining Kyoto, thus confining the pact to the dustbin of history, because Russia's participation is crucial to exceed the threshold of 55% of global emissions for the Treaty entering into force. When the US decided in 2001 to pull out, Russia was the only country big enough to achieve that level. At an international conference in Moscow in September 2003, Putin still shocked a mainly pro-Kyoto audience in an unexpected interjection, when he said: "In Russia, you often hear, either as a joke or seriously, that Russia is a northern country and it would not be scary for it to be two or three degrees warmer. Maybe it would be good and we could spend less on fur coats and other warm things."

Other Russian critics, including prominent high-ranking political decision-makers and academics, have raised more pertinent objections against Kyoto. One of its best-known spokesmen is undoubtedly Andrei Illarionov, President Putin's economic adviser. At a recent press conference, in St. Petersburg in April, he compared Kyoto with an "interstate Gulag or Auschwitz." He stressed that Kyoto "has very many negative implications ... First we wanted to call this treaty an interstate Gosplan, but then we realized that a Gosplan is much more humane, so we should call the Kyoto Protocol an interstate Gulag. ... In a Gulag, people were at least given the same rations, which did not lessen from one day to the next, but the Kyoto Protocol proposes decreasing rations day by day. ... The Kyoto Protocol is a death treaty, no matter how strange this seems, because its main purpose is to stifle economic growth and economic activity in countries that assume obligations under this protocol."

In many other interviews Illarionov has raised additional objections against Russia joining the Treaty. "Kyoto would result in an economic holocaust for Russia. Kyoto-ism is another example of totalitarian ideology like Marxism, communism and socialism. Russia has imported those ideas from Europe and suffered badly in the twentieth century. Kyoto-ism would lead to the creation of bureaucratic monsters at national and supranational levels that -- through allocation of emissions quotas -- would be a blow against basic human freedoms and human rights, and would decide the fate of nations, companies and people worldwide."

In the same vein, Sergei A. Karaganov of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy commented: "Europe is about socialism, and we are about capitalism. We are going away from collectivism, and they are moving toward it."

Kyoto is "deeply flawed" in Illarianov's view. "Over the past 100 years, the increase in global temperatures may appear significant. However, over a longer period it becomes obvious that global temperatures vary a great deal -- largely as a result of natural phenomena. The current global temperature is lower than has been observed at other times in the past 1000 years."

Illarionov is equally critical about the burden sharing of Kyoto. "Russia, which now actually accounts for just 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, will have to implement reductions while China, which accounts for 13 percent, has no obligations and the U.S., which accounts for almost a third, has rejected them altogether."

Kyoto advocates have always claimed that emission trading could yield considerable profits for Russia of up to $10 billion annually. Russia's current emissions are about 30 percent below its allocation, and it could make money by selling unused emission quotas to countries which exceed their emission ceilings. But Illarionov believes that if Russia meets its goal of doubling Gross Domestic Product by 2010, Russia's emissions will rise to such an extent that Russia will not have any emissions credits to sell. On the contrary, it will have to cut emissions itself, with depressive effects on its economy.

But in the intervening years Russia could make a handsome profit, couldn't it? No, as Mikhail Delyagin, the Chairman of the Board of Guardians of the Institute of Globalization Problems, explains: "If Russia ratifies the Kyoto Protocol today, it will not receive any significant sums, which would make it worth speaking about. Russia can only sell its quotas to the Europeans and the Europeans, will purchase quotas from Eastern Europe, then from Ukraine and what remains, the meagre crumbs, they would probably buy from Russia."

Other Russian sceptics have also insisted that emission trading is pie-in-the-sky, with nobody offering guarantees. "Who would buy our excess polluting capacity?" wonders Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, an independent think tank. "The US will not join Kyoto, and developing countries are exempt. Western Europe has agreed to comply with the protocol and cut its own emissions. It's obvious that there are no paying customers for Russia in this deal."

On the part of pure science these views are supported by Professor Kirill Kondratyev of the Research Center for Ecological Studies in St. Petersburg. He claims that the "science behind the Kyoto Protocol is still highly uncertain, and reducing greenhouse gases will have little or no impact on climate change." This point of view was also reflected in a recent report by the Russian Academy of Sciences that stated that the Kyoto Protocol has no scientific basis and puts the Russian economy at risk

But Putin has now brushed all these objections aside in order to secure Europe's support for Russia's membership of the WTO. At a press conference in the Kremlin on May 21, he qualified the protocol on completing bilateral negotiations on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization as "an expected and balanced agreement". He stressed the necessity for Russia to retain possibilities of broad economic cooperation with new EU members. "Today's summit will contribute considerably to building common free Europe," Putin said. "We believe that Russia should become a WTO member on the terms acceptable for us. As far as ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is concerned, Russia supports it however we have some concerns about obligations that we are to undertake," he stressed. At the same time Putin added that Russia would speed up movement towards the Kyoto Protocol's ratification.

The reason behind this volte face is that Russia believes that membership of the WTO is crucial for diversifying Russia's economy and reducing its dependence on oil exports. Europe is Russia's most important trading partner. The expanded EU will account for more than 50 percent of Russia's exports, up from about 35 percent before expansion. Therefore it has been lobbying hard for Europe to lower the bar for joining the WTO. Kyoto has been used as bargaining chip to mollify Europe to concede. Of course, officially the Europeans are bent on saving the earth from purported man-made global warming. But at the same time, at the back of their minds, fear for Russian 'unfair' competition because of its non-compliance with the CO2 emission constraints mandated by Kyoto, will undoubtedly have played a role.

The statement of the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Vladimir Chizhov, was, however, somewhat more cautious than that of Putin. He told journalists: "Russia fully shares the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. However, its ratification will depend on the conditions provided to the country to join this accord. ... There are different opinions on the necessity to ratify this protocol in political as well as in scientific circles. ... The motives that made some countries join the Kyoto Protocol and others ignore it should be thoroughly studied."

It should not be forgotten that the Russians are reputed to be tough negotiators. Maybe Chizhov's reservations might bring new surprises. After all, the devil is in the details.

Whatever may happen, these events remind us of the words of Winston Churchill: "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Or have the conflicting signals to be regarded as the advent of a modern pluralistic society in Russia? As such, that would be a good thing, provided that it will not thwart rational decision-making based on sober cost-benefit analysis. But one can hardly escape the feeling that the new Russian position on Kyoto constitutes a serious retrogression in that respect. Perhaps it is high time for a sequel of Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly".


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