Russia Isn’t Bluffing on Kyoto

In late October, Vladimir Putin shocked the environmental movement the world over by announcing doubts over whether <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Russia would ratify the Kyoto protocol.  Owing to the American and Australian refusals to ratify, under the terms of the treaty the protocol, which would set limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases,” can only go into effect following Russian ratification.  In early December, President Putin's chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, announced that the President had told a meeting that the protocol would not be ratified “in its present form.”  Yet still environmentalists and their allies insist that the treaty is not yet dead.  There are several reasons why they are deluding themselves when they say so.

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First, Russia's position on the protocol has advanced steadily from “We will ratify soon” earlier in the year, through “We need to think about ratification” in October, to “We will not ratify in its present form” in December.  Yet environmentalists argue that Russia has not made its mind up because of a statement made the day after Illarionov's comments by a Deputy Economics Minister, Mukhamed Tsikanov, to the effect that as far as he was aware, Russia was still “moving towards ratification.”


It is somewhat odd to argue that the words of a junior minister hold the same weight as those of the President, for Illarionov has made it clear that he was merely repeating what President Putin had said, an inconvenient fact that environmentalists tend to ignore.  When the Russian Information Agency, Novosti, reported Illarionov's statement, it said clearly “at the meeting Vladimir Putin stated a position regarding Russia's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol: it cannot be ratified in its present form as limiting the development of the Russian economy.” Illarionov himself underlined this when he told a news conference on December 4, “The statement I made two days ago repeated word for word what the Russian president said at his meeting with EU representatives.” Despite being “only an official” as environmentalist and their allies constantly dismiss him, Illarionov is clearly speaking for the President on this matter.  It is foolish to argue otherwise.


Another argument raised in favor of keeping Kyoto on life support is that it is in Russia's economic interests to do so.  This argument again goes against Illarionov's clearly expressed assessment of the protocol's economic effects on Russia.  The Kyoto protocol originally envisaged Russia economically prostrate, with its industry collapsed and therefore willing to accept welfare payments from the West in the form of payments for credits to allow the West to emit the greenhouse gases Russia was no longer able to produce.  This is the main reason that 1990 – the last year that the Communist bloc's smokestack industries were belching out carbon at full strength – was chosen as the base year against which Kyoto targets would be set.


Yet Russia's economy has not remained weak.  Its industry has begun an amazing recovery, with strong economic growth leading to greater output of greenhouse gases.  At current rates, Russia is likely to have exceeded its Kyoto targets by 2008, the beginning of the first compliance period under the treaty.  Russia, far from being able to make billions selling credits to the West, would almost certainly have to buy them, probably from other former Communist countries that have not seen economic recovery.  Illarionov was one of the first in Russia to realize that President Putin's aim of doubling Russia's GDP by 2010 was completely incompatible with the Kyoto protocol's demands.  The country is faced with a choice between a growing economy and a form of welfare dependency.  Unsurprisingly, President Putin has chosen self-improvement as his country's preferred course of action.


The final argument advanced in support of the contention that Russia might yet ratify Kyoto is that this is merely a negotiating tactic, and that Putin is holding out for bribes.  Alexey Kokorin, head of the World Wildlife Fund's climate change program in Russia, told Agence France Presse, “What matters to [Putin] these days is membership of the WTO. He has placed all his prestige on the line and the big question is whether he can wring European concessions on the WTO in exchange for ratifying Kyoto.”


This might make sense if President Putin's statement, as relayed by Illarionov, had left any credible room open for ratification.  Yet the objections to Kyoto's “present form” advanced by the Russians are essentially the same as those endorsed 95-0 by the U.S. Senate in 1997, when it objected to the protocol's failure to impose any emissions caps on developing nations such as China and India.  Both those nations have made it clear repeatedly that they will not accept any restrictions on their ability to emit greenhouse gases for the foreseeable future.


There is therefore no chance of the protocol being amended to meet Russia's objections.  If the Kremlin's stance on Kyoto was a negotiating tactic, it could have advanced less serious objections that could have been met as part of bringing Russia round.  Instead, it would look like the President has given in to China and India if he were to ratify the protocol now.


There is another dimension to Kyoto that also bears investigation. Russian scientists are highly skeptical of the science used to claim that global warming is a problem.  This was made clear at the World Climate Convention held in Moscow in October.  Yuri Izrael, chairman of the conference, opened the conference by saying, “All the scientific evidence seems to support the same general conclusions, that the Kyoto protocol is … based on bad science.”  Kirill Kondratiev, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 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, “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.”  On the final day, when the debate was opened up to the floor, Prof. Bert Bolin, a leading figure in the movement expressing alarm about global warming, was forced to admit that 9 out of 10 speeches from the floor expressed doubts about the so-called “consensus” view.


President Putin has therefore been advised the following in recent months.  His economic advisers warn that Kyoto will damage Russia's economy and give an advantage to its competitors like China and India. His scientific advisers tell him that global warming is not an impending apocalypse and that it might even be beneficial for Russia by making winters less cold and more land habitable (there is even the prospect of Russia's northern coast being opened up to sea traffic).  His diplomatic advisers, on the other hand, argue that Russia might be able to gain some diplomatic advantage by ratifying the protocol.  It should be evident to any dispassionate observer that, on balance, Russia's interests are best served by non-ratification of the protocol.


Illarionov told the press during the Moscow conference that, “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.”  Those words may yet end up being Kyoto's epitaph.