Outside View: The Russian Tea Leaf Room

Outside View: The Russian Tea Leaf Room

Horner Op-Ed at UPI
December 10, 2003

<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />MILAN, Italy, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- It is clear that the Ninth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change differs from its predecessors immediately upon entering the conference hall.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

A heavy air of resignation hangs over the delegates and green agitators. Even the leaflets bearing sophomoric taunts to the United States appear the Sad Clown, fittingly mere blocks from La Scala.

The side-events and presentations are no different. Consider the panel chaired by the chairman of the U.N.'s climate body Rajendra Pachauri, styled "Negotiations after Kyoto: A Bridge Too Far?" Even the pressure group Pew Climate Center and its coterie of rent-seeking member companies implicitly acknowledge that Kyoto, as we know it, is dead.

Apparently, however, they regard the collapse as a spectacular success, leading as it did the nations of the world down the path of failing to meet emission reduction targets, with an even better next step imminent.

It is pathetic, in a way, to witness the gloom-and-doom crowd reduced to peddling sunshine.

Yet, is a "Kyoto" a lost cause? While not on the agenda, the now all-important question is what can entice Russia to come on board and ratify this agreement capping emissions from energy use among 38 countries. That this issue now mocks the scheduled "implementation" topics as premature sidebars is of course due to Russia's announcement last week that it cannot ratify Kyoto "in its current form."

With U.S. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky describing that form as "an unrealistic and ever-tightening straightjacket" here, U.S. ratification is not foreseeable. Russia is therefore indispensable given Kyoto's peculiar formula for going into effect.

Given past negotiations, as well as a pattern of inconsistent statements by senior Russian officials, it is not unreasonable to view Russia's recent announcement as merely an attempt to sweeten its already unique deal, secured upon first landing in the catbird's seat.

These statements, however, have trended decidedly toward conclusive.

Russia has made the case that Kyoto's scientific underpinnings are, at best, suspect. It questions the calamity of a climate slightly warmer in the colder regions in the colder months, at night, which is the horror conjured by the UN's climate modelers. Finally, it has made clear its intention to continue its economic growth, an impossible task under Kyoto's targets and timetables.

The target and timetable originally dealt Russia in 1997 included room to grow under the universal, but not accidental, 1990 emission baseline from which they had sharply fallen due to their manufacturing base collapse. Their target was intended to be so liberal it would certainly be an inducement through the promise of selling credits for emissions not incurred.

It was not anticipated to become a cap that would be tested or even exceeded prior to the first compliance period of 2008-12.

It also did not anticipate Russian economic growth, which, since Kyoto was drafted, annualizes at near double digits. Kyoto would interrupt this, while Russia hopes to build upon it.

In lieu of starting over given the current stalemate, possibilities for simply tweaking the treaty have emerged here. These would save 10 years of negotiations for about the same period of emission forgiveness.

First, Russia might gain temporary exemption from Kyoto's restrictions, as it hinted this week it felt was only appropriate seeing as how regional competitors and major emitters China, India and South Korea get a pass.

This seems unlikely, only because nothing is impossible for a desperate EU.

No less likely is slaking Russia's desire for a market to buy its few emission credits it expects to have for coming in under its emission quota, by merely convincing the exempt countries to join, providing a market for Russia's (diminishing) credits.

An alternative approach being discussed is to simply ignore, across the board, that the first compliance period -- what we all know as Kyoto -- never happened, and proceed to a second period including a distant deadline but more strenuous commitments, plus a very forgiving schedule for Russia.

A major weakness of this approach is that the second compliance period has been long-intended as the vehicle to bring exempted countries into the commitment process.

With Europe failing to meet its first commitments and the specter of a sweetheart deal for "covered" emitter Russia, this is not likely to convince the free-riders to adopt costly commitments of their own.

These are all variations of the same theme: what bitter pill must which non-Russian countries swallow to rescue Kyoto. Reality would dictate that Russia simply recognizes that no acceptable sacrifice is likely, and calls it a game.

Like all the conference gossip this is speculative, though few options seemingly exist within the current Kyoto framework to entice Russian ratification, short of massive forgiveness of foreign debt (to the tune of around $20 billion). One can accuse the United Nations of all sorts of things. A lack of imagination, however, is regrettably not one of them.

The book is not yet closed on Kyoto, and indeed the next chapter may still be written in Milan.