Russia Dragging Its Feet on Kyoto

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In the two first weeks of December, the Polish city of Poznan will host one of the most important international conferences of the year. With thousands of government officials and nongovernmental organizations attending, Poznan will lay the groundwork for a successor to the Kyoto treaty, which aims at reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But as policy experts around the world prepare for the conference, Russia's role as a potential hazard to the post-2012 climate-change negotiations is being dramatically underestimated.

There are signs that Russia may prove to be among the most difficult negotiation partners in the ongoing international talks on a successor agreement to Kyoto. If the Russian government refrains from accepting an ambitious cap on its emissions in the United Nations talks on climate change in Copenhagen in 2009, other crucial negotiation partners such as India, China and the United States are likely to retreat from an agreement that requires them to make ambitious commitments.

Between 1992 and 2003, average annual emissions of carbon dioxide per capita in Russia were as high as 11 tons, slightly higher than those in Germany or Britain. These figures clearly show that Russia bears the same high responsibility for climate change as do the other industrialized countries listed in Annex B of the Kyoto treaty. Countries in Annex B are expected to make significantly higher emission-reduction commitments in the ongoing round of negotiations than other countries. Nevertheless, the negotiation strategy of the Russian government so far seems to be more aiming at removal from this annex after 2012.

There are four main factors that explain why Moscow has not been overly supportive of the current global talks on a successor agreement. First, Russia has seen a continuous rise of its greenhouse gas emissions since 1999. The government believes that the record-high emissions level of 1990 could be reached again by 2020.

Second, Russia doesn't fully understand the negative consequences of climate change. A "Russian Stern Review," a comprehensive survey of the likely costs and gains of climate-change impacts for the country, is long overdue. The widespread view among decision-makers and the public is still that the country could, at least in the medium term, actually benefit from climate change. Nonetheless, recent studies suggest that the costs of even moderate climate change could be higher for Russia than the possible gains.

Third, public awareness on climate-change issues is very low, which helps push the problem to the bottom of the country's priority list. In a public opinion survey commissioned by the BBC, 55 percent of Russian respondents answered in 2007 that they had not heard or read very much about climate change, and 9 percent had read nothing at all. Among the 21 countries surveyed, Russia was second-last in climate-change awareness. Unsurprisingly, at a time when climate change has become one of the most important long-term issues for Western media, the Russian media still pays very little attention.

Fourth, there is a lack of relevant expertise among many of the country's scientists. In contrast to the high international standing of science in general, climate science plays a relatively minor role. As global warming is not a topic that generates significant attention and funding in Russia, scholars have largely been unable to take part in the international discourse. Therefore, some of the country's scholars are still sure that man-made emissions could never be high enough to effectively contribute to global warming.

In addition, the reshuffle of the government after Dmitry Medvedev became president could hamper international climate talks. Observers expect that, as a consequence, responsibilities may still be unclear by 2009. At the very crucial UN talks in Copenhagen, we could then see a Russian delegation consisting partly of officials with little knowledge on the topic, no experience in negotiations on climate change and very limited decision-making competency.

If the Russian leadership wants the country to be recognized as a global power, it must make a significant contribution to solving international crises. This can only happen if Moscow recognizes the vital significance of the climate crisis to most actors around the globe. It is also imperative that Russia accepts the role it needs to play in solving the problem of climate change. By actively committing itself to meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Russia would demonstrate its willingness and ability to take its place among the leading countries in the most crucial issue facing the global community today. With one of the world's lowest energy-efficiency rates worldwide, vast potential for renewable energy and the political will to diversify the economy, Russia is in an ideal position to do exactly that.

Oldag Kaspar is climate-change consultant for the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Moscow.