The Russian enigma

Michael Grubb, associate director of policy at the Carbon Trust and visiting professor of climate change and energy policy at Imperial College, analyses the Russian climate talks

President Putin’s recent speech at the World Conference on Climate Change (WCCC), Moscow, was greeted with mixed emotions – but the most prominent were confusion and frustration. My guess is that history will judge it very differently. The background itself was indicative. President Putin’s announcement at the Genoa G8 summit in 2001 that Russia would host a climate change conference in 2003 came out of the blue. The origins of the conference lay with Yuri Izrael, President Putin’s science advisor and long-time Kyoto sceptic. He wanted a conference on science – uncomplicated by the politicking and econom-ese that surrounds Kyoto. Yet the shadow of Kyoto ratification hung over the whole affair, from beginning to end, precisely because of its absence.

President Putin’s opening speech was masterful in its ambiguity. To listen to the media reports, anyone would think he had “done a Bush”. Yet the phrase he used, according to a colleague of mine who speaks Russian, was that “Russia is continuing to prepare for ratification and will take a decision when we are ready”.

My overall view of the conference is more positive than many. I feel it is healthy that the kind of analysis that has long circulated in Russia has now been brought to the surface where it can be properly debated. The side events made it clear that there is a significant voice of Russian civil society – including its regions – now pressing for ratification; and that the bulk of big business and most government ministries also support it.

World opinion

So what does this mean for Kyoto and the international effort? The run-up to the conference was full of rumours that the Kremlin was demanding more guarantees of foreign investment under Kyoto’s “flexible mechanisms”, suggesting that the Kremlin is still seeking to eke out more concessions before finally doing the deed. The irony is that it is probably Russia that will lose most from the continuing uncertainties and delay.

At the latest count, 119 countries have ratified Kyoto, and therefore the prospect of a further delay of unknown duration suggests their most plausible option is simply to go ahead regardless. Indeed, increasing numbers are saying that they will abide by the terms of the treaty even if Russia was to back away – the EU’s position on this is now also being supported by Canada, as well as most developing countries.

Investment pressure

But the Kremlin’s reported demand for investment guarantees does imply a disconnection between old-style international politics and the realities of the market in carbon emission reductions that is established under Kyoto.

Putin may want Western governments to assure more clean investment under Kyoto, but under the terms now agreed it is Western companies that control that, not their governments. And companies listening to Putin’s speech may conclude that Russia is still not ready.

Those companies seeking secure, low-cost investments that will guarantee emission credits can and are going elsewhere, to countries that have already ratified Kyoto and are putting in place the mechanisms to attract clean investment and to verify the resulting emission reduction credits.

Such investments are already being announced for some of the more advanced countries in central Europe. The greatest irony is that while Putin’s statement, and the WCCC overall, is sufficient to keep the Kyoto process going, it is Russia that will lose out from the continued delay – and seeking more investment guarantees is not going to change that.

Optimistic future

At the same time, the WCCC was a kind of catharsis. It offered the world a glimpse into the internal Russian debate on climate change, highlighting how different culturally it has been from that in the West, but also exposing the arguments to international scrutiny. And it helped to raise that debate to the highest working levels in Russia.

My own best guess would be that if the Parties at COP9 press ahead with Kyoto, then early in the New Year Putin will announce that he is handing Kyoto on to the new Duma for the final leg. To be safe, I should caveat with the famous words of Churchill: “I cannot forecast to you the actions of Russia. It is a riddle-wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” But just possibly, the engagement engendered by the WCCC will help to make that just a little less true in the future.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie