COMMENT: What is Russia really doing in Durban?

Publish date: December 4, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

DURBAN, South Africa – The ongoing UN climate talks in Durban are supposed to seal the fate of the Kyoto Protocol – so say some observers. Others argue the goal is to reach agreements on technical issues. But there is one intriguing question few pause to consider: If Russia – the world’s fourth or sixth leading emitter, depending on estimates – has no plans to join the protocol’s second commitment period, then what is Moscow’s delegation even doing in South Africa?

This is hardly a trivial question to ask. Indeed, what is the point of Russia’s participation in the climate negotiations in Durban? If we are not there for a reason, we could have just as well, at the very least, halved the number of delegates and saved Russian taxpayers more than a handful of roubles on the envoys’ travel expenses. Or quit the negotiations altogether – still cheaper, that way.

It was thanks to Russia that the Kyoto Protocol came into force, and Russia expects the world’s gratitude for that, official representatives from Moscow keep emphasizing. Now, along with Canada and Japan, we are arguing against further participation in this climate deal. By extension, then, Russia is begging off involvement in those mechanisms that were developed as part of the protocol – thus forgoing the chance to earn money by availing itself of their opportunities. Or is it that earning this money – funds that will have to be spent on ecological and emission reduction programs – also implies transparency and control ? That it would be harder, then, to demonstrate that it hasn’t been lost forever somewhere in the bottomless pit of Russian corruption?

To be sure, the Kyoto Protocol does not at present bind Russia by any obligations: Our greenhouse gas emissions are so below the allowed levels that we really have no reason to worry about what impact efforts at reductions might have on our economy.  Furthermore, last year’s presidential energy efficiency initiative could result in additional cuts in our emissions.

It logically follows that continued participation in the Kyoto Protocol carries no particular concerns for Russia – but quitting it would force us to relinquish the right to partake in Kyoto instruments such as greenhouse gas emissions trading. The profits that we would thus forfeit could otherwise have been used toward environmentally beneficial modernization of Russian industry, a goal both ambitious and expensive. For no apparent reason, Russia’s official envoys seem to want none of the opportunities, nor the money they offer. So what, then, are we doing in Durban? Why are we so insistent on having our forests taken into account? Why have we even announced a 15 to 25 percent emission reduction target by 2020?

Russia, together with Canada and Japan, is among the countries that have taken an intransigent stance against the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. The rationale driving Russia’s bedfellows in this resistance campaign is understandable – emission reductions are a costly enterprise. But why would Russia refuse to save the protocol, being itself in such an advantageous position?

The very palpable risk is that the single legally binding international agreement that imposes on the world community at least some sort of duty to curb emissions will soon cease to exist. True, it’s imperfect, and yes, its requirements do not cover all countries. But it is the only one we have – and likely, no other will appear for the next five or seven years at least, if not a decade. If, by then, the world has gladly forgotten what it felt like to be bound by a common pledge to stop climate change, will anyone even want to resurrect it and assume further obligations? And without any obligations, who will need a treaty that has no binding power to impose emission cuts?

“Let’s be honest. If Russia does not want the only legally binding climate agreement there is – however imperfect it may be – to continue to exist, then we need to step away from the UN negotiations table and take our leave, because otherwise there is no sense in such participation,” said a blog on Below2C (in Russian), a news bulletin kept by Russian NGO observers at UN climate talks.    

Russia neither receives any financial aid via its climate obligations, nor does it provide any to other countries. So why should Russian taxpayers foot the bill for Moscow’s officials’ biding their time between receptions and coffee breaks in Durban? Shouldn’t Russian delegates rather let other countries, those that have a vested interest in a global climate deal, reach an agreement – and quit standing in their way? If we want to save the climate and prevent a global catastrophe, we really need to participate, and urge others to do the same.

The UN climate negotiations have lost what kept it going and gave the world a hope – the verve to solve the climate problem. This loss is painfully visible in Durban. Decisions made and positions taken look more and more as if they were devised with the ultimate goal of deriving a profit, cashing in on the suffering that the less fortunate countries are already experiencing from the advancing climate change. Was this really what the whole process was about?

Climate change is happening at an alarming pace, and the disastrous effects are clear and evident – the havoc it is wreaking on the island states that are fast sinking into the ocean, and the developing nations of Asia and Africa, which are hurting from food and water shortages… The Durban summit kicked off with a new expert report that estimated more than 710,000 victims have over the past ten years been claimed by 14,000 extreme weather events attributed directly to the consequences of climate change. The impact of this crisis on Europe and Russia is so far less ruinous – but not for long. Russia’s agricultural south is no more the blossoming land of plenty it used to be, and areas traditionally known for rich harvests are shifting up north, where Russia barely has infrastructure to deal with such changes.  

For Russia, the choice is clear: Either we aim for progress in our emission reductions and join the world’s efforts to keep global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius – or we stop pretending that we believe in climate change and our ability to overcome it. And if we choose the latter, let’s stop fooling our taxpayers and spending their money in vain. That money may yet serve Russia well one day – to survive climate change when it hits us for real.

Vladimir Slivyak, a frequent contributor to Bellona, co-chairs the ecological group Ecodefense! and is currently on site in Durban as Russian NGOs’ official observer delegate to the COP17 UNFCCC climate talks.