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Warm Partners

By Roland Oliphant Russia Profile 11/18/2009

Russia Has Good Reason to Fear Climate Change, But Clashes of Interest Make Agreement at Copenhagen Increasingly Unlikely

Russia and the European Union made a show of putting climate change on the agenda at their summit in Stockholm on Wednesday. But while Europe is increasingly anxious to ensure emissions can be slashed by 20 percent before 2020, Russia is more interested in cashing in the billions of dollars worth of unused carbon credits it has accumulated since the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005.

Tackling climate change is meant to be a priority. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called it “perhaps the most important,” issue the EU and Russia are cooperating on today. And in case the figures gathered in Stockholm needed any encouragement (the key players are Medvedev, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Javier Solana and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso), on the eve of the conference the Nature Geoscience journal published research warning that temperatures could rise by six degrees Celsius in a century unless serious action is taken immediately.

Russia and Europe have both publicly committed themselves to halting the rise in temperature at two degrees Celsius, an objective that both sides reiterated at the post-summit press conference. However, the battle against climate change – despite Medvedev’s claim that this area of cooperation is very important - is subject to the same kind of political wrangling as other, more traditional areas of “discussion” (the diplomatic term for those areas on the EU-Russia agenda that do not fall into the category of “warm partnership” and “cooperation,” the words Medvedev and his European colleagues indulgently used to describe their summit.

“We have not agreed on the legal details, but we have in principle agreed that there will be an agreement,” Medvedev told journalists.

The two sides were meant to come up with a common position in advance of an international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, scheduled to take place in December. At the conference nations are meant to hammer out the details of how to meet the EU and G8-endorsed objective of limiting global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Negotiations, however, are moving slowly.

So far, Russia has been in a fairly comfortable position in the global warming debate. Other industrialized nations have had to have a hard look at where to make cuts in order to meet their commitments, but Russia, whose industry collapsed with the Soviet Union and has never really recovered, has been well within its imposed allowance.

Under the “cap and trade” system imposed by the Kyoto protocol, Russia was allocated an allowance that reflected its 1990 emissions. As a result Moscow has amassed “billions of dollars worth” of carbon credits, said Alexander Strelkov, a research fellow in the department of European integration at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Europe.

Under the Kyoto protocol Russia should be able to sell these credits on to those countries who want to use them, and it has already led to a spate of inventiveness on the part of Russian companies with spare credits on their hands. In 2007, Gazprom started selling European customers Kyoto credits so they could burn its gas.

“The Russian position is, ‘well, we want money for this.’ But on the European side there is a feeling that if we use up all these spare credits, then the target of reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020 cannot be achieved,” said Strelkov. “That is the big thing hampering these negotiations.”

That delay is bad, because the scientific evidence suggests that action cannot wait. Corinne Le Quere, a professor at the University of East Anglia and member of the British Antarctic Survey, who led the research published earlier this week, told the BBC that Copenhagen is “our last chance to stabilize at two degrees Celsius in a smooth and organized way.”

Environmentalists hope the Copenhagen deal will improve on the now outdated Kyoto protocol, which was first adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005. But world leaders, Medvedev included, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore earlier this week struck off the G8 commitment to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 from their final communiqué. Instead they adopted the less committal motion that emissions should “peak over the next few years.”

The original commitment was agreed on in July by the G8 leaders, including Medvedev. Regardless of whether or not Medvedev and Russia - not to mention the United State and Japan, whose leaders were also at the APEC summit - are really guilty of deliberate back-tracking (China, the biggest polluter in the world behind the United States but not a G8 member, is said to have lobbied hardest for APEC to drop the commitment), the episode illustrates the prevarication that blights all climate negotiations.

Russia’s leadership has shown signs of ambivalence on the issue, however. While accepting that climate change is now a major issue in world politics, the “Russian government still tends to see the issue as a part of “really pragmatic negotiations,” said Strelkov, “the CO2 gas emissions are worth billions of dollars.” Finding a common position with which to approach Copenhagen will depend on Europe allowing Russia to keep at least some of it treasure trove of carbon credits.

Yet Russia has good reasons to take climate change seriously. It is true that receding Arctic ice has opened up the northern sea route between Europe and Asia (the first passage along Russia’s northern sea border was made by a fleet of icebreaker-escorted container ships this summer), promising a great boom in business for ports like Arkhangelsk. But the warming of a couple of degrees that made that possible is probably already irreversible, and further warming – of the six degrees warned of by Le Quere’s team, for example – would have serious implications, even if the nightmare scenario of mass flooding and uncontrollable forest fires raging across Siberia is overblown.

Apart from the fact that Russians tend to resent the mildness of the last few winters, the melting permafrost and rising sea levels are likely to present very serious logistical challenges, especially in the far north, where roads and buildings use the permafrost for a foundation. “It is clear that Russia will have to reform much of its infrastructure,” said Strelkov. And then there is the political risk. An EU report authored by Solana last year warned that the melting of the Arctic ice could well set the stage for conflict between Russia and Europe over the region's resources. Best settle the issue while the partnership is still warm.

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