TCS Daily

The Kyoto End-Game Begins

By Iain Murray - May 25, 2004 12:00 AM

On Friday May 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to the world that, in order to gain EU backing for Russia's entry to the WTO, he would "speed up movement towards ratification of the Kyoto protocol." Many have interpreted this as a sign that the internal debate in Russia over what to do about Kyoto is over (e.g. The Boston Globe - "Putin promises to ratify Kyoto treaty"). But others have been far more cautious. The others are probably right.

To assess what has happened we have to parse the President's words carefully. He said, "The EU has met us half way in talks over the WTO (World Trade Organisation) and that cannot but affect positively our position on the Kyoto Protocol. We will speed up Russia's movement toward the Kyoto Protocol's ratification." Yet he also said two other things that have not been as widely reported. As the Los Angeles Times was careful to point out,

"Putin stopped short of pledging a positive vote on ratification, cautioning that his government still had concerns about the 'obligations' imposed by the treaty. He also said it was still 'not 100% certain' parliament would endorse the Kyoto treaty."

None of this should come as a surprise, as Putin was simply following exactly the same line as his government has followed since it stepped back from the treaty in October last year. No Kremlin official has ever said that Russia would not ratify Kyoto and even Andrei Illarionov, the adviser most vocal in his opposition to what he terms "Kyoto-ism," has never claimed as much. (Illarionov's refusal to answer a "yes-or-no" question put to him by British Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman led to an unintentionally hilarious exchange where Illarionov asked "Why should Russia ratify Kyoto?" to which Paxman could only reply, "Because you've been asked to.")

Yet despite this, Russian officials have continually stressed the government's concerns about the obligations Russia would have to take on, just as President Putin did on Friday. This qualification is often accompanied by the contention that the protocol is "discriminatory" against Russia, because nations like China, Brazil and India are exempt from obligations under the pact, unlike Russia, and these are the nations Russia now views as its competitors.

These concerns clearly remain. Indeed, they were strengthened last week when the Russian Academy of Sciences issued a report that disputed the scientific basis of the Kyoto protocol and argued that it would be economically harmful to Russia. The summary of scientific opinion noted the "absence of scientific substantiation of the Kyoto Protocol and its low effectiveness for reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as is envisaged by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change," and again stated, "the requirements of the Kyoto protocol are of a discriminatory character, and its mechanisms involve economic risks for Russia."

Yuri Izrael, the distinguished climatologist who authored the summary, which was presented at a general meeting of the Academy, said, "The protocol is ineffective for attaining the goal set by it -- the stabilisation of the ecological situation and the world economy." At the same time, the Interfax news agency reported that the Academy is still formulating its stance on the protocol, with the Academy President Yury Osipov saying, "Scientists have studied every aspect of this problem and will formulate their stance in the future, taking into account all the negative and positive consequences the protocol's possible ratification may have for Russia."

The other caveat the President mentioned was the role of the State Duma, Russia's parliament, which his party, United Russia, dominates. In April, three Duma committees -- for ecology, the economy and international affairs -- issued a joint statement that, "Ratification [of the protocol] is inexpedient given the U.S. pullout and the non-participation of many countries with high levels of man-made impact on climatic processes." The Duma is clearly no fan of the economic effects of the treaty, although the Duma's independence from the President is somewhat questionable.

With scientific backing for his advisers' concern about the effects of the protocol and the opposition of the Duma, it would seem that President Putin left enough get-out clauses in his announcement Friday to ensure that Russia does not have to go through with ratification. Indeed, the announcement that the Academy of Sciences is to make a further report suggests that this was anticipated.

It is probably because of these caveats and Russia's history on the issue that reaction from environmental groups to the announcement was muted. Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate change programme for the World Wildlife Fund, said, "I think Putin's announcement is a major step forward. But we need and urge Putin to specify a timetable. He should encourage the Duma to do something as soon as possible," recognizing that he said nothing to indicate what he meant by "speeding up" ratification. Steve Sawyer of Greenpeace found himself only able to say, "I'm cautiously optimistic. It's not a cut and dry promise but it will be much harder for Russia to decide 'No' to Kyoto now."

When I last wrote on Russia and Kyoto, I compared the issue to a game of chess. That analogy still appears appropriate. The EU and the Russian Federation appear to have exchanged Queens in the form of the WTO/Kyoto agreement, but don't bet against the Russian Queen reappearing on the board. There's a lot of chess left to be played in this particular end-game. EU trade supreme Pascal Lamy has said that Russia's accession to the WTO may not happen until 2006 at the earliest. The Kyoto protocol is due to be phased into effect starting in 2005.


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