Russia’s Kyoto Decision Still up in the Air

Published July 1, 2004

On May 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to the world that, in order to gain European Union (EU) backing for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), he would “speed up movement towards ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.”

Many have interpreted this to mean the internal debate in Russia over what to do about Kyoto is over. The Boston Globe, for example, headlined its news story, “Putin promises to ratify Kyoto treaty.” But others have been far more cautious in their assessment of Putin’s remarks.

Internal Consensus Lacking
Putin’s words must be parsed carefully if we are to understand what has happened. He said, “The EU has met us half way in talks over the WTO, and that cannot but affect positively our position on the Kyoto Protocol. We will speed up Russia’s movement toward the Kyoto Protocol’s ratification.”

Yet he also said two other things that have not been as widely reported. As the Los Angeles Times was careful to point out, “Putin stopped short of pledging a positive vote on ratification, cautioning that his government still had concerns about the ‘obligations’ imposed by the treaty. He also said it was still ‘not 100% certain’ parliament would endorse the Kyoto treaty.”

None of this should come as a surprise, as this is the same line his government has followed since it stepped back from the treaty in October last year. No Kremlin official has ever said Russia would not ratify Kyoto. Even Andrei Illarionov, the Putin advisor most vocal in his opposition to what he terms “Kyoto-ism,” has never claimed rejection of the treaty was imminent.

Economic Disparity, Dubious Science
Russian officials have continually stressed their concerns about the obligations Russia would have to take on, just as Putin did on May 21. That qualification is often accompanied by claims the protocol is “discriminatory” against Russia. Unlike Russia, such nations as China, Brazil, and India are exempt from obligations under the pact, and those are the nations Russia now views as its chief economic competitors.

Those concerns clearly remain. Indeed, they were strengthened during the last week of May when the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) issued a report that disputed the scientific basis of the Kyoto Protocol and argued it would be economically harmful to Russia. The summary of scientific opinion noted the “absence of scientific substantiation of the Kyoto Protocol and its low effectiveness for reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as is envisaged by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,” and again stated, “the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol are of a discriminatory character, and its mechanisms involve economic risks for Russia.”

Yuri Izrael, the distinguished climatologist who authored the summary, which was presented at a general meeting of the RAS, said, “The protocol is ineffective for attaining the goal set by it–the stabilization of the ecological situation and the world economy.”

Professor Oleg Sorokhtin from the RAS’s Institute of Oceanography was quoted by the Russian news agency TASS as saying, “The Kyoto Protocol is not needed at all, as even considerable emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have almost no effect on the Earth’s temperature but contribute to agricultural productivity and to the restoration of forest resources.”

Putin’s Escape Clauses
A caveat Putin mentioned in his pledge to the EU was the role of the State Duma, Russia’s parliament, which his party, United Russia, dominates. In April, three Duma committees–for ecology, the economy, and international affairs–issued a joint statement that, “Ratification [of the protocol] is inexpedient given the U.S. pullout and the non-participation of many countries with high levels of man-made impact on climatic processes.” The Duma is clearly no fan of the economic effects of the treaty, although its independence from Putin is questionable.

The involvement of the Duma raises another interesting issue related to Russia’s internal politics and the perception of Putin’s rule as authoritarian. Vladimir Milov, head of the Institute of Energy Policy, told newspaper Vremya Nostoy on May 25, “I am not convinced that the books on this matter have been closed. The president gave quite a transparent hint, saying that this should be decided by parliament. This is generally a good argument for showing that there is in Russia democracy and a parliament, which might not agree with the opinion of the president. Considering the overall negative background in respect to the Kyoto Protocol, there could, in my view, be a serious continuation of the parliament ‘story.'”

With scientific backing for his advisors’ concern about the effects of the protocol and the opposition of the Duma, it would seem President Putin left enough get-out clauses in his May 21 announcement to ensure Russia does not have to go through with ratification. Indeed, the announcement that the Academy of Sciences is to make a further report suggests this was anticipated.

Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute ( His email address is [email protected].