Comment: Why Russia’s position on the Kyoto Protocol is a mystery even to its own ministers

By Olga Dobrovidova

Russian collective wisdom states that there are two major problems in Russia – fools and roads. In her musings on the eve of COP18, RIA Novosti Environment and Energy news editor Olga Dobrovidova finds herself wondering whether lack of information should be added to that list.

The imminence of climate talks does strange things to a person – I, for one, accidentally watched a recording of a 2009 Russian Federation press conference in Copenhagen.

It was a rather thought-provoking experience, and not just because COP15 was right before I hopped aboard this particular travelling circus (and so I have only seen the aftermath of that PR disaster).

That was three years and more than ten negotiating sessions ago, and yet I am willing to bet that if there is a Russian press briefing in Doha, the questions will be pretty much the same. What about all those stockpiled AAUs? Are you willing to give them up?

Honestly, it’s as if Tianjin, Cancun, Bangkok, Panama, Durban and multiple Bonns never happened.

But that’s not what struck me either. Russia-2009 from a climate policy perspective was a growth market, many things happened – we rolled out our Copenhagen pledge and even had a national Climate Doctrine in the works.

(Reading about the hopes and aspirations connected to this document back then literally makes me cry. The doctrine seems as irrelevant and abandoned now as a framework document can possibly be).

So Oleg Pluzhnikov, a Ministry of Economic Development official who was taking questions at that press conference, had a lot of graphs to show and seemed generally eager to talk. He still is, by the way, this time carefully supporting business in their quest for a Kyoto second commitment period.

RTCC understands Putin government are still open to idea of joining C2P, but likely to delay decision to final days

With that in mind, I’ve got a couple of questions for the panel.

“Russia has already demonstrated that it will not sell billions of tons of AAUs during the first commitment period… I can assure you this won’t happen”, says Mr Pluzhnikov in a not-so-convincing attempt at expectations management.

Hard to tell whether this is 2009 or 2012. One small print detail, though: at home that 2008-2012 “demonstration” is often labeled as our failure to benefit from Kyoto Protocol, and by no other than our current Prime Minister. Are we now saying we plan to successfully fail at that again?

Next, we’ve been hearing that the 2020 target of minus 25% that Russia pledged is effectively a rise, not a decrease in emissions, and thus it is shamefully lacking ambition and we should know (and do) better.

That was somewhat grudgingly admitted at the 2009 press conference and is constantly being pushed under the “Russia is a Climate Donor” rug now. On the Russian side of the border, business and climate activists, united in a surreal coalition, keep insisting that the only way this target might not be achieved is in the event of a massive fire on each and every gas station in the country.

This, in their view, makes Kyoto second commitment period a safe bet.

Dodgy data

I’ve never tried setting fire to gas stations, so I don’t know how harmful that is to Kyoto goals.

I have, however, reported on emissions data for Russia, particularly in 2010 (latest official UN data available, as many of you know). GHG emissions excluding LULUCF sector rose 4,27% that year, after a crisis-driven slide in 2009 – granted, that was still 34,25% below 1990 levels, compared to 35,6% a year before.

But then I hear prominent experts saying that it may well be only 30% below 1990 by now, and I can’t help but doubt the gas station scenario. Are we really confident the next eight years will be that different from the last three (which, I repeat, may have cost us 5% of the safe space below the goal)? Is 25% a good goal, a sham, or business as usual? Is the safe bet of a second commitment period actually that safe if you don’t bet on ‘hot air’?

The cornerstone of this goalpost problem lies in the magical 40% energy intensity target – as then-president Medvedev once put it, Russia will reduce the energy intensity of its GDP by 40% by 2020.

The goal was already around in 2009, it is still on the table now, and it is used in most of the 2020 emissions projections. For instance, it comes up when Russian NGOs talk about setting a national peaking year or a desirable goal of keeping emissions stable at today’s level.

It is referenced in – well, everything.

Lost policy

And yet, all attempts to ask the Energy Ministry about progress in that department – where exactly are we five years from the announcement? – have failed spectacularly.

My colleagues tell me that the deputy minister they tried to ask about this turned white and looked like he was about to have a heart attack.

I mean, it is not that big a secret that policy measures in energy efficiency so far have not been particularly effective, but that’s the thing with Russia – there are so many low-hanging fruits that some of them are just bound to fall into your basket anyway.

And still… Mr Pluzhnikov in 2009 says that if it becomes obvious that the target is not going to be met, then Russian government will consider “further steps”. Isn’t it time for that? Or, rather, can it get any more obvious?

I have recently been doing some paleo-UN-climatology and, in particular, reading about the first commitment period debate in Russia back in 2004.

That was a very fascinating time when presidential advisors claimed that, should Kyoto be ratified, by 2010 Russia would become a major buyer of AAUs. Russian Academy of Sciences officials stated that there was no scientific basis for the agreement, and the general feeling was that the Kyoto conspiracy would somehow be the end of the country as we know it.

No one had any solid numbers to support that idea, but everyone just knew it would inevitably happen.

Sliding doors

It is simply striking, though, how similar in terms of tone and level of conviction those arguments against ratifying KP sound to those for the second commitment period today.

Replace “first” with “second”, “no benefits” with “no risks”, flip the emissions projections upside down, add some 390 million tons of CO2 in Joint Implementation and stir.

Serve with some optimistic market estimates for future JI projects (some of which, need I remind you, in 2010-2012 were approved without an ERU buyer). Just as some people were (groundlessly) counting on doubling GDP in 2004, other people might be on the 40% nonsense today.

Now, my first instinct was to say “don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the second commitment period for Russia”. My second instinct, however, tells me that my attitude towards KP is hardly relevant.

I have made an effort to give the business side of the Kyoto argument as much media space as the political one, but not because I am somehow inherently pro-KP.

It made more sense than the mantra-like “inefficiency” argument; whenever I hear that, I just want to scream “your extortion tactic circa 2009 has failed, GET OVER IT!”.

It still makes sense, of course, but I have to say, I certainly hope you know what you’re doing, guys – because the Internet remembers everything, and rest assured, seven years from now, there too will be someone to re-read what you’ve been saying and I’ve been reporting.

It never fails to amaze me how history can run in circles, and, during my time of scientific observations, it seems to be running around lack of reliable information. Yes, uncertainty is unavoidable, especially when it comes to a national economy, but I would feel much more confident if I did not have to just assume that everything works out.

By this paragraph, I changed my mind about this column a gazillion times, but then Mr Pluzhnikov in 2009 suddenly said something that, as I realized, would be a great closing remark for the evening before Doha. He was answering a question about the possibility of a cap-and-trade system in Russia – the issue, by the way, seems to be stalling the adoption of a national goal three years after that question.

“The situation is unfortunately developing in a way when we really don’t know quite what’s happening in the Russian industry. We don’t know the energy saving potential quite clearly, only some general figures.

But with regard to specific industries or branches of Russian economy, we don’t really know the potential… we do not know the potential for companies to invest in energy efficiency projects”.

Oh, how I wish this was only true for 2009.

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