Russia and Climate Change

This was briefly covered over at Robert Amsterdam blog, and I noticed the minor flurry of reactions to it, so I thought I’d chime in. The other day, Pres. Medvedev announced Russia’s plan for regulating its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Specifically, Russia intends to cut GHG emissions by 30 billion tons by the year 2020. So far so good. The fine print, however, is that the period for measuring the reductions is from 1990 to 2020. Remember that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and economic implosion of the 1990s, Russia’s industrial production – and consequently its emissions – drastically fell over a relatively short period of time. Thus, Russia could still literally decrease its emissions over 1990-2020, while increasing its current emissions from now until 2020. The Wall Street Journal, a reliably staunch defender of the global climate change regime (sarcasm), today blasted Medvedev’s plan for this very reason. But first, a little context.

The Kyoto Protocol provides for ‘commitment periods’, during which certain countries must decrease their emissions based on certain metrics; these obligations are ‘mitigation commitments’. Under the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, Russia is obligated to not exceed its 1990 GHG emissions. Thus, Medvedev’s plan is consistent with its existing treaty obligations (note that the number one per capita emitter – the United States – has no treaty obligations).

The first commitment period ends in 2012, and by then, hopefully, a new framework will be in place. Russia’s current obligations are ‘negative’ – i.e., they must not increase emissions above a certain ceiling – versus the ‘positive’ obligations of richer countries to reduce emissions below a certain floor. Still, virtually every country’s mitigation commitments under Kyoto relate to the same ‘base year’ – the year to which a country’s required decreases or forbidden increases or tethered. And this is where the WSJ gets it wrong.

WSJ writes, “Setting the same starting point for all nations in this year’s climate negotiations might seem equitable at first, but it could fail to capture historical differences—like the fall of the Soviet Union.” Umm, yeah. Let’s review – (i) USSR collapses; (ii) Russia’s industrial capacity is incredibly underused due to the resulting economic chaos; (iii) which means Russia’s 1992 or 1993 emissions are a shadow of its 1990 emissions. WSJ inexplicably attributes this to Russia having “more heavy machinery” during the Soviet era. Indeed, the USSR had more machinery than post-Soviet Russia, but then again it consisted of several other republics, who are now also Kyoto parties. Thus, for WSJ‘s point to be relevant, statistically massive amounts of machinery must have been literally removed from the country, somehow. In contrast, if Russia’s base year was set at the mid-1990s, when so many of its factories were not even running, then its mitigation commitments would be premised on normal economic activity equaling only fractional usage of industrial capacity. This is not the goal of the climate change regime, and certainly does not seem like the sort of policy the WSJ typically advocates.

No, what really burns the guys over at the Journal is not Russia’s base year, but rather its 0% mitigation commitments. And what, you may ask, allowed Russia to receive such a sweet deal under Kyoto? Well, ultimately its ratification was essential for the Protocol to come into force. The treaty requires a certain % of GHG emitters to be parties before coming into force, and the Bush Administration’s unilateral withdrawal made Russia the key ratifying state. During negotiations, Russia was able to bargain effectively, both by working with Ukraine and due to possible role as a spoiler if the U.S. withdrew, which was foreshadowed all along by Congressional opposition. Then, even after the negotiations were finished and the U.S. withdrew, Russia waited a few years, so that it could milk its temporary advantage as much as possible.

Now, we have a new Russia leader and a new round of negotiations (starting late this year), but the game hasn’t changed. Russia, in compliance with its current commitments under Kyoto, is maximizing its bargaining power by symetrically meeting obligations, and no more. Thus, if the base year is changed to a more recent date to reflect the WSJ‘s “historical differences,” Russia won’t be leaving any value on the table – it won’t be required to do anything more than it otherwise would have been.

And where is the United States at this point? Well, with no binding commitments to meet by 2012, we are far behind our industrialized peers who are Kyoto parties, meaning any new agreement will be disproportionately harsh on us, due to our own political decision. Indeed, the ‘walk away from the table’ strategy favored by the Bush Administration not only made Russia the good guy, but it left us out of the Kyoto process and with a severely diminished negotiating capacity.

Finally, WSJ was kind enough to point out that some activists are in fact heartened that Medvedev is even discussing climate change. This contrasts to China – a larger emitter than Russia – which still strenuously opposes any binding commitments for itself. What Medvedev is saying is that Russia plans to be a party to the post-Kyoto successor agreement. Instead of criticizing him for complying with Russia’s treaty obligations, Western countries could treat it as an invitation to engage Russia as a possible ally against China. I’ve written before that this is an atypical US-Russia issue that may not receive coverage but which should be considered by the Obama Administration in its upcoming trip to Russia.

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