In the new movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” Hollywood conjures the catastrophic effects of global warming, complete with tidal waves, hailstorms, and tornadoes. Environmentalists are hailing the film as a way, at last, to focus public attention on the issue of climate change. Back in the real world, there is real and immediate, albeit less dramatic, movement concerning global climate change and the future of the planet.
Russia is expected soon to decide whether to sign the Kyoto Protocol, meant to reduce global warming by requiring developed countries to reduce their output of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” produced by burning fossil fuels. Russia has the power of ultimate deal breaker in the treaty, which was reached in 1997. Because the pact, to go into force, needs developed states accounting for 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, to ratify, Russia — which produces 20 percent of the CO2 junking up the environment — if it opts out, will sink the treaty.
The U.S., which itself emits 30 percent of greenhouse gases, has already opted out of the deal. Russia now must decide if like the U.S., the economic risk of subscribing to Kyoto standards is too great, or if the environmental payoffs are worth it. May 20th is the deadline for Russian state agencies to advise President Vladimir Putin on what to do. And so far, it doesn’t look like they’re making his decision any easier.
The Kyoto deal requires that developed countries reduce their output of “greenhouse gas” by 5.2 percent over the 1990 levels in under a decade. Scientists predict that increases in greenhouse gases are dangerous because they can cause significant warming of the earth, which in turn could potentially disastrous changes in the environment like violent storms, expanding deserts and melting ice caps, causing sea levels to rise and engulf coastal regions. Over 100 countries have endorsed Kyoto, and together they account for about 40 percent of CO2 emissions.
It is unclear what Russia will decide to do. The Christian Science Monitor reports that “the consensus in Russia’s scientific community appears to be that global warming is a fact, and that spreading industrialization is the likely culprit.”
Alexander Bedritsky, head of the Russian government’s Meteorological and Environmental Monitoring Service told CSM: “Over the past 30 years our winters have become progressively warmer. The most alarming consequence is warming in our permafrost zones, where a change of one or two degrees could melt the soil and threaten houses, roads, and pipelines.”
E.U. officials are hopeful that Russia will sign on—and are dangling the prospect of a World Trade Organization membership in front of Russia in the hopes of bargaining for a signature. A Russia-European Union summit is scheduled in Moscow on Friday, at which the E.U. delegation is expected to reaffirm its strong support for Kyoto’s ratification.
On the other hand, Putin seems to have a lackadaisical attitude toward global warming. At a Moscow conference on climate change last November, Putin joked that sharp increases in temperature might be nice for chilly Russia: “If there is warming in Russia, then we will need to spend less money on fur coats and our grain harvests will increase,” he said.
Worse yet for those in favor of Kyoto, last Friday the Russian Academy of Sciences announced that it finds the science behind Kyoto unsound, and says that signing the treaty could be disastrous for Russia’s economy. Russian scientists concluded that even if they were to sign, it would do little to stem climate change. It said that the Protocol does not achieve the goals of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Academy of Sciences says that the expense of reducing CO2 emissions would jeopardize Putin’s goal of doubling Russia’s GDP in the next decade. They believe that “for a cold country like Russia” global warming might even have positive effects, like a decrease in heating and transportation costs.
Andrei Illarionov, chief advisor to Putin and one of Russia’s most outspoken opponents of Kyoto, says signing on to the treaty would cause an “economic holocaust for Russia” and that the science is “deeply flawed.” Illarionov told an audience at the Adam Smith Institute’s Energy Policy Unit in London on Tuesday:
“The Kyoto Protocol is a serious threat to humanity. Industrialised countries which have adopted Kyoto’s constraints on carbon emissions have had significantly lower economic growth rates than industrialised countries that have not adopted them. Averaged economic growth in 1997-2003 in 11 non-Kyoto developed nations, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Israel, Cyprus, and the United States, was 3.1per cent in contrast to 1.7 per cent GDP annual growth in 17 pro-Kyoto countries [EU15, Canada and Japan].”
Russia is also angry over what it feels is “discrimination” in determining its eligibility as a developed nation. Scientists say that the quota treats Russia as if it were still the USSR in 1990, a highly industrialized state responsible for a fifth of the world’s CO2 emissions. But Illarionov argues that Russia is actually a developing economy, like China, and should be exempt from Kyoto. Illarionov said:
“The Kyoto Protocol discriminates against Russia. Russia, which now actually accounts for just 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, will have to implement reductions while China, which accounts for 13 percent, has no obligations and the US, which accounts for almost a third, has rejected them altogether.”
What will Putin do?
Peter Lavelle, an independent Moscow-based analyst, writes in United Press International, predicts that Putin will likely not sign on to Kyoto:
“The resistance to Kyoto found in the economic and scientific communities appears to be misplaced, however, and underestimates the future of Russian economic growth.
Signing Kyoto hardly endangers Putin’s intent to accelerate the economy. Retooling Russia’s industrial base does necessarily mean a renewed and significant increased use of carbon-based fuels. Russia can be reindustrialized and post-industrialized with natural gas, a natural resource the country is amply endowed with.
It is very likely Putin will say “nyet” to Kyoto. Even with his own scientists agreeing global warming is a long-term problem, it will be interesting what short-term gain Putin expects.”