Wednesday, Nov. 04, 2009

Russia Still Dragging Its Feet on Climate Change

Russia doesn't seem to care two bits about global warming, and it's not hard to see why. Most Russians would probably be happy if the country was a little warmer. Officials even joke that once climate change has run its course, people may start pouring into Siberia instead of trying to escape it. If the polar ice caps melt any further, Russia would be able to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean, where it's believed to have huge fossil-fuel reserves. For the rest of the planet, however, the picture is not so cheerful.

To say that Russia is hesitant about tackling climate change is putting it mildly. The last time the world tried to get the country's cooperation on the issue was in 1997, during negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol (the international treaty on limiting greenhouse-gas emissions). Because Russia is the world's third largest source of emissions after the U.S. and China, the accord would have failed without it. So the treaty was written in a way that would allow Russia to keep polluting as much as it wanted and grant the country billions of dollars in emissions allowances to sell to other countries that needed to meet their Kyoto commitments.

As a U.N. official who participated in the talks put it, "Russia got the sweetest deal: free money, no restrictions." But apparently even that wasn't enough. It took another seven years of painstaking negotiations — and promises from the West to help Russia join the World Trade Organization (WTO) — to get the country to ratify the deal.

How the world will persuade Russia to take an active part in the upcoming climate-change summit in Copenhagen on Dec. 2 remains to be seen. Scientists say this is the last real chance that global leaders have to deal with global warming before its effects become irreversible, and this time around there are few obvious carrots with which to bait the Kremlin. (Russia has since abandoned plans to join the WTO.) And Russia has already indicated that it is not putting a high priority on the talks. In June, President Dmitri Medvedev announced the country's emissions targets, which would effectively see Russia spew 30% more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2020 than it does today. "We will not cut our development potential," Medvedev said at the time.

Then, at a preliminary round of climate talks in Copenhagen in late October, Russia sent an even more disappointing message. The head of the country's delegation, Mikhail Zelikhanov, a parliamentary deputy for Prime Minister Valdimir Putin's United Russia Party, questioned the basic premise of the fight against climate change. "Scientific circles in Russia and elsewhere still do not have a united opinion on the causes of global warming," Zelikhanov told the group of lawmakers from 16 countries in the hall of the Danish parliament. He suggested that an international panel be created to study whether or not global warming was the result of human actions and whether it could be stopped by cutting pollution.

Zelikhanov is part of a growing chorus of global-warming skeptics in Russia. At a climate conference in St. Petersburg in 2007, Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of parliament, told experts that a process of "global cooling" was in fact taking place. As evidence, he cited the paintings of the 16th century Dutch masters, whose warmly colored landscapes, he said, showed that temperatures were indeed higher back then. And last month, the state-run Channel One television station aired a documentary called The History of a Deception: Global Warming, which claimed that a media conspiracy had invented the idea that pollution is to blame for climate change.

None of this bodes especially well for the success of the December summit. "It will not be possible to finalize an agreement without the participation of Russia," says Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, who is spearheading the negotiations. "We will need to engage Russia in this dialogue." This might be possible through concessions, though. Last month, Denmark put itself on Moscow's good side when it became the first country to approve the construction of Russia's Nord Stream gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea. On Nov. 2, Rasmussen received a sign of support from Putin on climate change, albeit a slightly vague one. "Are we ready to support Danish efforts to promote the ideas of the post-Kyoto period? Yes, we are," Putin said at a joint press conference with Rasmussen.

A European official involved in the negotiations says Russia's fear of isolation may also compel it to cooperate. With the U.S. and China taking the lead in the climate-change summit and Brazil and India playing an active role, Russia would be the largest polluter and the only major power not helping to solve the crisis. "They won't want to be the bad guy," says the official, who spoke last month in Copenhagen on condition of anonymity.

But another member of the Russian delegation at the October talks left little room for optimism. Elena Chistyakova, chief adviser to the parliament's foreign affairs committee, says Russia may sign the treaty — and that's it. "[Russia] will drag out the ratification as long as they can. And if they ratify it, then they'll drag out the implementation," she says. "There's just no political will."