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Analysis & Opinion
21.12.09 Global Warning
By Roland Oliphant

“The results were modest,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said of the climate summit in Copenhagen. And that was putting it kindly. Whatever one’s reading of the past two weeks’ wrangling, it is hard to qualify them as success. For the Komersant daily, it ended in “complete failure.” For Alexei Kokorin, the head of WWF Russia’s Climate and Energy program, it was not a failure but an “unsuccess,” though nonetheless disappointing.

“We have a quite good – not excellent, but quite good – agreement between the leading heads of state, which may go on to provide a basis for subsequent negotiations and legally binding decisions,” said Kokorin. But the results are not impressive. The Copenhagen Accord, as the document has been dubbed, was reportedly hammered out between China, the United States, India, Brazil, South Africa and the European Union in the last frantic hours of the Copenhagen summit. It “recognizes” the “scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius,” but does not bind the signatories to achieve it. And, crucially, it sets no deadline for an emissions peak. It does, however, provide for rich countries to contribute to helping poor countries deal with the effects of climate change and to help them take action against it.
And Russia?

Medvedev didn’t hang around for the debacle. When he called the results “modest” he was speaking in Almaty, where he was attending an informal CIS summit for which he left Copenhagen early. But before leaving the conference he did take the time to deliver a speech in which he pledged to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020, “irrespective of whether we can get an agreement on all substantive principles and regardless of whether it will be a legally binding agreement, for one simple reason: it is profitable to ourselves.”

The Izvestia daily lauded Medvedev for being the “only leader” to make such a pledge. Whether that is true or not - the paper did not explain how it kept track of the other 192 delegates’ every statement - it does looks like a significant change in Russian policy, considering that as recently as June Medvedev told Russian Channel One that “by 2020 we would reduce our emissions by around ten to 15 percent.” But as he noted earlier in his speech, Russia’s current greenhouse gas emissions are 30 percent lower than 1990 levels as a result of the collapse of Soviet industry, meaning that in the next ten years, Medvedev is actually predicting a growth in emissions. “Of course it is a growth,” said Kokorin. “But the ‘business as usual’ scenario would see growth of emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. So it’s not very far from business as usual, but it is still a significant commitment.”

Medvedev was frank about Russia’s mercenary objectives in slashing its emissions – he seems intent on achieving the cut through energy efficiency measures, rather than restrictions on emissions. But that self-interest makes the commitment all the more credible. “I believe him. It is crystal clear that Russia needs to improve its energy efficiency, and the government is clearly enforcing such a policy,” said Kokorin.

There is a packet of tools at the government’s disposal to achieve this. The most painful weapon is the enforcement of increased domestic energy prices, something that Russia’s influential gas and oil companies have long been pushing for in a bid to free up supplies for the export market. That would be politically hazardous, but it is a long-term policy that the Kremlin appears to be committed to.

But there are other, less controversial measures higher on the list of options. Bureaucratic rules currently require state-sector organizations, from schools to hospitals to museums, to buy the cheapest equipment available at the time of purchase. This often rules out more expensive but more efficient and therefore cheaper to run equipment. Removing those administrative barriers would allow public enterprises to take more commercially – and incidentally environmentally – sensible decisions.

Medvedev was right to point out that Russia has accounted for “half the global reductions in emissions over the last 20 years,” but it is still the third largest polluter after the United States and China, so his bundling of a financial incentive with reducing emissions is good news for environmentalists. But even with the goodwill of Russia and the European Union, which pushed hardest for significant cuts, there will be little impact on global climate change if the Copenhagen Accord cannot be turned into a legally binding international agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.

That is meant to happen at a follow-up conference in Bonn six months from now, and here Russia will be able to offer less help. Neither the Russian public nor its government are as concerned about the dangers of climate change as they are about the health of the domestic economy (it doesn’t help that in the Russian climate, the prospect of a two degree temperature increase is anything but threatening, pointed out Kokorin). And the Russian think tank the Institute of Economic Analysis became the darling of climate skeptics everywhere with a report released this week claiming that British researchers had distorted data from Russian meteorological stations.

But it is China, not Russia, which has become the environmental villain in the eyes of many and has been blamed for removing any reference to a timetable or stronger targets. Indeed, Russia’s principle objective in Bonn will be to retain the valuable carbon-credits it received as a result of Kyoto, and as long as Russia gets its way on that, it is unlikely to block a deal. “China hoped Russia would say something to undermine the process this time, but it did not happen,” noted Kokorin.
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