Russia kills Kyoto

Climate Change, Commentary, Frontier Centre, Worth A Look

MOSCOW — A senior Kremlin official declared yesterday that Russia would not ratify the international treaty requiring cuts in the emissions of gases linked to global warming, delivering what could be a fatal blow to years of diplomatic efforts.

The official, Andrei Illarionov, said in remarks to reporters and in a subsequent interview that President Vladimir Putin had told a group of European businessmen that the treaty, known as the Kyoto Protocol, ran counter to Russia’s national interests.

“We shall not ratify,” said Illarionov, the senior Kremlin adviser on economic affairs and an outspoken critic of the treaty, apparently ending more than a year of uncertainty about Russia’s position.

The treaty, completed in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 after two years of intense diplomatic wrangling, would require major industrialized countries to reduce gas emissions by 2012 by 5.2 per cent from levels measured in 1990. While 120 countries have ratified the treaty, it can take effect only when approved by enough countries to account for 55 per cent of 1990 emissions from the industrialized world. Without Russia and the United States, the 55 per cent threshold cannot be met.

With the administration of U.S President George W. Bush having previously rejected the pact, Russia essentially held a veto over the treaty’s enactment.

Barring a reversal by Russia, the treaty now appears all but dead, leaving uncertain the future of international co-operation on the question of global warming.

Russian officials had increasingly voiced concerns about the economic costs of curtailing such emissions, which come mainly from burning fossil fuels. They had also questioned whether the warming is caused by human activities and, even if it is, whether it poses any great risks.

“A number of questions have been raised about the link between carbon dioxide and climate change, which do not appear convincing,” Illarionov said in the interview. “And clearly it sets very serious brakes on economic growth, which do not look justified.”

Russia has also complained that major polluters like China and India are not even bound by the treaty, giving them an unfair economic advantage. But mostly, experts say, Russia is bothered by its declining financial return from joining the treaty. Since the collapse of Soviet-era industry, Russia’s emission of gases has fallen by an estimated 30 per cent, meaning it has already far exceeded its required reductions.

Under the treaty’s complex formulas, though, Russia stood to gain financially from selling credits that would allow other countries to exceed the treaty’s limits. Some major Russian industries lobbied for the protocol, seeing it as a way to use the credits to modernize aging plants.

Without the participation of the United States — which would have been a major buyer of credits, thus driving up their price — many officials here concluded that the potential economic gains were sharply reduced. And with the Russian economy increasingly reliant on oil and gas production and exports, the officials concluded that the treaty’s limits could become a drag on economic growth in the future.

Some independent analysts agreed that there was now little economic incentive in the treaty for Russia. “Their stake has been transformed from tens of billions of dollars over five years to tens of millions, if that,” said Prof. David G. Victor of Stanford University, an expert on the treaty.

The Russian statements reverberated powerfully in Milan yesterday, where hundreds of delegates from around the world were in the second day of a two-week meeting on the protocol and an underlying 1992 climate treaty that contains no binding provisions.

Some participants said Russia’s apparent retreat necessitated a reappraisal of the Kyoto-style approach, which requires prompt emissions curbs in wealthy countries while excusing all developing countries, including giants like China, from obligations.

But some environmentalists and European and UN officials said they remained hopeful that Illarionov’s remarks did not reflect Russia’s official position.

“This is just the latest statement in a long line of predictions by Illarionov which have failed to eventuate,” said Alexei Kokorin, the head of climate-change programs in Russia for the World Wildlife Fund. “He opposed the Russian energy strategy, which was then adopted in May.”

Jos Delbeke, who directs the climate-change unit of the European Commission, pointed out that Russia stood to lose the chance for big new investments by western European countries in improving its power plants, pipelines and other facilities as part of what are called joint implementation projects under the treaty. “Our private sector is lining up for this,” he said. “It seems against the interests of Russia not to go into these.”

The Russian statements brushed aside impassioned appeals from the United Nations and from individual countries, especially in Europe, that have embraced the protocol as the best way to reduce emissions that many scientists link to harmful climate change.

If Russia’s rejection is final, countries could proceed independently with projects to curb emissions or enter into new discussions toward ways to spur international efforts, experts said. The European Union has said that, with or without the protocol, it would proceed in 2005 with an internal trading scheme allowing member states to reach targets by investing in emissions-curbing projects in other states.

But the overall effect would almost assuredly be to delay any significant new initiatives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

— New York Times News Service