EU: Russia veering far off track in fighting climate change

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The July 2nd EU-Russia Climate Change Cooperation conference, arranged by the Dialogue Platform Brussels-Moscow organisation, indicated one of the biggest stumbling blocks in getting Russia to aggressively join the fight against climate change is that many in the Russian scientific community and political circles actually view global warming as a positive development for the country’s harsh and cold climate.

The conference said that it is crucial to change Russia’s thinking and instil in the population the same sense of urgency with which the rest of Europe is working to fight the disastrous deterioration of the climate and the effects it could have on life on earth as we know it.

No post-Kyoto participation?

The Key Note Speech was made by Oleg Pluzhnikov, head of Ecological Division at the Russian Ministry for Economic Development and Trade. He told the audience that concrete policy measures had been undertaken for anti-climate change legislation. The government has issued five decrees in the last two years regarding the Kyoto Protocol – of which Russia is a signatory nation.

This is, however, far from sufficient to meet the international obligations to fight global warming, the EU panel said.

Furthermore, he readily admitted that climate change is not a priority of the Russian Government. Even more distressing is the fact that Russia might drop out of post-2012 climate change co-operation, when the Kyoto Protocol is replaced by an updated framework.

To fight this development, something on the level of a Stern Report focusing specifically on Russia and highlighting the economic harms it will face in climate change, could be an incentive for the Russian business community to push the government to action. The Stern Report, released last year by Great Britain, painted a shocking picture of the economic devastation climate change could cause world-wide, saying that it would be more profound than the economic ravages caused by World War II.

Misled climate change optimism

The European Commission’s Jurgen Salay, from the Directorate General for the Environment, said that the international focus of the Russian government and business world makes it likely that the country will follow global trends. According to Salay, deregulation of the energy market and a change in public perception about global warming are initial steps to take to influence Russia to follow international footsteps against climate change.

There is, however, little reason for optimism when it comes to rasing the awareness of the Russia public or government. Even top-ranking scientists and politicians in the country seems to think that global warming is good for Russia, because it might make remote areas with natural resources become more available.

This notion disregards the fact that the permafrost is melting, creating inaccessible marsh lands in the northernmost areas of the vast nation. It is also very worrying that international solidarity with other victims of global warming seems to be completely lacking.

“People in Russia only hear about presumed positive effects of global warming in the media, said Bellona Russian affairs expert Kristin Jørgensen. “

Many Russian experts still challenge the fact that climate change is man made, and in general the Russian people strongly trust these experts.”

One hundred percent increase in emissions projected in Russia

Alexei Kokorin from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of Russia gave a frightening projection of potential emissions from Russia. If the energy demand developments follows the economic growth rate, and coal replaces natural gas at the same tempo as it does today, he predicted a worst case scenario of a 100percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions in Russia by 2020. Like Pluzhnikov, Kokorin stressed the importance of creating a sense of urgency among the population to spur necessary action.

Howard Chase, Director of European Government Affairs with British Petroleum (BP), stressed the importance of dialogue between the business communities in Russia and the EU. He highlighted that EU businesses constitute the largest investor in the country, and that 25 percent of the EU’s petroleum demand is supplied by Russia.

To further integrate environmental practices in the energy field, he suggested a deepening of the global carbon trade scheme, something that might also stop the trend towards increasing coal dependency. By making it more expensive to pollute, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology would also be made more attractive, further cutting emissions.

It does not look like Russia will follow this path, as they might opt out of the post-Kyoto mechanisms. Furthermore, coal is currently riding such a wave of popularity that there are concerns that an immediate and dramatic rise in emissions from coal power plants could occur.

The nuclear problem

The nuclear energy debate was unfortunately silent at the conference. It was only briefly mentioned that Russia might increase its nuclear power output from 16 percent to 24 percent of its energy consumption, with planned upgrades and engineering life-span extensions for outdated nuclear power plants.

Bellona sees this as a disturbing development, as there are no plans for nuclear waste handling, a problem that will be devastating, especially for Russia which is already groaning under the weight of 15,000 tons of poorly stored spent nuclear fuel. The consequences of radioactive contamination in Russia are no secret, as witness the shocking effects of Chernobyl as one of hundreds of other hair-raising examples

Russia is the third largest home market for energy in the world, and it is extremely important that they keep up with the international pace in climate change mitigation. The conference did not bring much optimism for the immediate future. Still, there is reason to hope that the Russian people will understand the dramatic consequences and act accordingly. But a major shift in policy thinking is required for the country.

Niklas Kalvø Tessem

niklas@bellona.no