COMMENTARY: Russia's climate card

Posted: 10 February 2004

Author: Jonathan Lash

In January this year Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute, moderated a panel at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, to discuss the provocative proposition: "Global Climate Change: Mother Nature's Weapon of Mass Destruction?" The discussion was full of surprises, not least for the views of the eminent Russian delegate, as Jonathan Lash explains.

Jonathan Lash© WRI
Jonathan Lash© WRI
Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute© WRI

One of the panelists was Russian President Vladimir Putin's economic advisor, Andrei Illarionov, who had stunned climate negotiators a few weeks earlier by announcing that he expected Russia would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The future of the Kyoto emissions-reduction agreement, negotiated in 1997, has been hanging in the balance ever since it was rejected by US President George W. Bush.

Without US participation, Russia is now the only hope for the future of Kyoto, which is supported by most of the rest of the world. Although the European Union has said that it will implement Kyoto even if it doesn't come into force, without binding agreements Europe will face intense internal pressure not to impose the costs of programs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions when the rest of the world isn't doing so.

In Davos Dr. Illarionov reiterated his assertion that Russia would reject the Protocol, and gave an explanation that startled business leaders and climate experts alike. There was, he said, no scientific evidence of global warming. Instead, he told the audience, the greater threat was global cooling. Russia would not accept Kyoto obligations, which, he insisted, would limit the growth of the country's economy.

Another panelist, Sir John Houghton, a leading climate scientist, noted that the evidence of human-caused warming is now overwhelming. Not only were 1998, 2002, and 2003 the hottest in the past thousand years, but the evidence of global warming's physical impacts are mounting with the passing of every day, as scientists record new findings on rising sea levels, disruptive ecological shifts, and melting glaciers and ice caps.

But Illarionov seemed as deaf to those arguments as he was to questions about why Russia would worry about Kyoto imposing limits on his country's growth. The protocol's caps are based on 1990 emissions levels, and would allow Russia significant room to grow its emissions since the country's energy use has significantly declined in the past decade. In fact, under Kyoto Russia would reap substantial profits from the sale of surplus emission allowances to other countries.

Since Illarionov made his proclamation, a number of other Russian officials have presented completely different -- and far more encouraging -- public statements. In December, senior trade minister Muhammad Tsikhanov said, "There are no decisions on ratification of the Kyoto Protocol apart from the fact that we are moving toward ratification." What's going on?

Bargaining chip?

One possibility is that Russia is waiting to see whether key ratifying nations -- Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan -- offer additional inducements for Russian ratification. The withdrawal of the United States reduced the prospective demand for, and thus the value of those surplus Russian emission allowances, the so-called "Russian hot air." Russia may be using Kyoto ratification as a bargaining chip in other negotiations with Europe, including WTO admission, energy investments, and debt relief.

In 2004, leaders in Europe and Japan will either find means to persuade Russia to ratify, or Kyoto will fail. If these negotiations fail, the only concrete step nations have agreed upon to protect the climate will evaporate.

Kyoto is not a perfect agreement, but its collapse would be a huge setback for climate negotiations, and undercut those companies that have taken voluntary steps to measure and reduce their emissions. With so much in the balance, this is an opportunity for real political leadership in Russia and Europe. And the outcome will have lasting repercussions for generations to come.

Jonathan Lash wrote this commentary for WRI Features. WRI is an environmental research and policy organisation, based in Washington.