Russia and Kyoto

29 September 2003

Russia and Kyoto

By Gwynne Dyer

President George W. Bush did not instantly kill the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change just by pulling the United States out of the treaty in March, 2001, but it did mean that every other major industrial country on the planet had to ratify it before it could come into effect. He then proceeded to turn the screws on those who might be induced to defect, and this week in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin started to crack. If Russia pulls out, the treaty dies.

Addressing an international conference on the science of climate change in Moscow on 29 September, Putin openly said for the first time that Russia might never ratify the treaty. He is considering where Russia’s interests lie, and there is not even a timetable any more. Since neither the science nor the economics have changed since Putin declared two years ago that Moscow would ratify the treaty, however, there are grounds for suspecting that his motive for postponing a decision is mainly political.

There can be no treaty without Russia, because it does not come into effect until 55 countries that together account for 55 percent of the industrialised countries’ emissions of carbon dioxide have ratified it. Over a hundred countries have ratified it already, but since the US alone accounts for a quarter of the whole world’s CO2 emissions, Russia must ratify to clear the 55 percent threshold. So why is Moscow moving away from a decision?

Putin’s public explanation was the need for further study. “(Critics of Kyoto) often say, half-jokingly and half seriously, that Russia is a northern country, and if temperatures get warmer by two or three degrees Celsius it’s not that bad,” he told the conference. “We could spend less on warm coats, and agricultural experts say that grain harvests would increase.” But surely he did not really mean that it’s fine for other people’s countries to turn into deserts or be drowned by rising sea levels so long as it’s good for Russia — and besides, it is far from clear that global warming would benefit Russia.

If the northern limit for grain-growing moved a couple of hundred kilometres further north all across the immense east-west breadth of Russia, it would add the equivalent of another France to the world’s agricultural resources. Since other countries’ food production would be falling at the same time, there would be high demand for Russian exports. But the real benefits and costs of climate change in Russia are not so easily calculated.

A report by scientists from Kassel University in Germany and Moscow State University early this year rejected the assumption that more warmth and rain automatically mean bigger Russian harvests. Some northerly agricultural regions would do better, but established farming areas in the south and west would suffer badly from excessive heat and recurrent drought. And Putin acknowledged this conclusion in his speech: “We must also think what consequences we will face in certain regions where there will be droughts and floods.”

So why has the Russian government given credibility to pro-global warming scientists like Alexander Bedritski and Yuri Israel, the Russian organisers of the current conference, by having President Putin address it personally? Especially when Russia could earn a lot of money by selling its surplus carbon emission rights to other industrialised countries that are having trouble meeting their target of a 5 percent reduction in their 1990 level of emissions by 2010. The answer, almost certainly, is international politics.

Like most European leaders, Putin is appalled by the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but he is trying hard to retain good relations with the most important country on the planet. Having openly opposed Washington on the invasion of Iraq and the Russian sale of nuclear power-plants to Iran, he doesn’t want to incur its wrath on Kyoto as well. On the other hand, as a major trading partner and perhaps one day a candidate member of the European Union, Russia does not want to annoy EU leaders who almost unanimously back the Kyoto accord. Then there’s the need not to alienate any Russian voters before the parliamentary elections in December.

So Putin’s best strategy on all counts is to delay, claiming the need for more time to study the issue. If Bush goes down to defeat in November, 2004, Russia will promptly ratify Kyoto. If the Bush administration and all its policies survive, Putin will then have a momentous decision to make about whether Europe or America is the more important partner for Russia — but many countries would face hard decisions at that point.

Why is the Kyoto deal worth saving, given that the reduction in carbon emissions needed to stop the warming process is more like 60 percent than the 5 percent mandated by the treaty? Because this is the first time in international law that countries have accepted legally binding obligations to shape their entire economy in ways that do not harm the global environment.

It took tens of thousands of people more than a decade to negotiate the Kyoto accord, and it is the template for all the far more rigorous treaties that will have to be made in future as global warming bites deeper and the political will for deeper emission cuts emerges. Lose this one, and we start from scratch again — but we may not have an extra decade to spare.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“If…floods”)