The dramatic pictures of widespread fires, buildings reduced to ashes, and smoke shrouding St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square have focused the world’s attention on Russia with a vividness most environmental activists could not imagine. The scorched images also present the chance to consider how Russia’s evolving climate change position could affect global agreements in the future.

Russia’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

For years, global warming was seen by most Russians as a problem affecting only distant countries. Even if it occurred, the thinking went, climate change would bring benefits. “For a northern country like Russia, it won’t be that bad if it gets two or three degrees warmer,” then-President Vladimir Putin quipped in 2003. “We would spend less on fur coats and our grain production would increase.” 

Seven years later, the effects of climate change are unmistakable—the hottest year in Russia’s recorded history, sparse rainfall, and the woodlands of Central Russia were turned into a tinderbox. The changes were occurring across Russia. The Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Rosgidromet) reported in 2008 that the winter temperature in Siberia rose 2 to 3 degrees Celsius over the past 120 to 150 years, compared to a global temperature rise of 0.7 degrees. 

But wheat production has not increased with the temperature. In fact, Russia has blocked all wheat exports because its overall production is down by a third due to the fires and dry weather, and the country needs the remaining grain to feed its own population. 

Russia is also experiencing more floods, windstorms, heat waves, forest fires, and melting permafrost than other regions of the world. With permafrost covering more than 60 percent of Russia, its melting is causing buildings to collapse, pipelines to fracture, and roadways, water pipes, and sewer infrastructure to crumble. The early hope that warmer temperature would benefit Russian agriculture has been dampened by climate impact models that do not foresee any net gains.

Why Kyoto Is Relevant 

Russia’s warmer climate is occurring against the backdrop of the Kyoto Protocol. Adopted in 1997, it did not take effect until 2005, when Russia ratified it. The agreement establishes carbon emission limits on developed countries and countries in transition, including Russia.  When these countries ratify the protocol, their emissions are tallied and when this total reached 55 percent of the category's total emissions, the protocol took effect.

Russia's ratification pushed the percentage above this requirement, meaning all ratifying countries were bound to meet their carbon reduction commitments. The target—which cover the five-year 2008-2012 time period-—were expressed in assigned amount units (AAUs), with each unit representing one ton of carbon dioxide.  

The ratification imposed no burden on Russia. The AAUs were parceled out based on a country’s carbon dioxide emissions in 1990, a very fortunate choice of a base year for Russia. With the country’s economy collapsing in the 1990s, carbon-emitting industries closed down and Russia’s emissions dropped to 40 percent below its 1990 level. While they rallied during the past decade, the recession put them back near the 40 percent mark in December 2009. 

Because Kyoto allows emissions trading, Russia’s bank of unused AAUs is a potential asset. Countries with AAUs they won’t use can sell them to countries that exceed their targets.  Russia has not tried to sell its AAUs and isn’t likely to anytime soon—doing so would further depress the energy market after developed countries failed to agree on a Kyoto successor. But Russia’s AAU supply continues to concern the international community.

What happens to the AAUs if the countries can agree on a new agreement that extends Kyoto past 2012? Because the recession led Russia to produce fewer carbon emissions, it would still have an abundance of AAUs—which it would like to keep.

But other countries believe a Kyoto extension should not allow Russia to dump its AAUs when it wants and destroy their collective carbon reduction efforts.  Clearly, a compromise is needed. The destructive fires and the resulting death toll in Russia are dramatizing the human, economic, and environmental impact of climate change and putting added pressure on Russia and the broader international community to find a compromise.  

Russia’s Changing Climate Policies

Russia’s climate change policies have moved along two loosely related tracks—one international, the other national. 

Internationally, Russia has adopted a wait-and-see approach.  Because of its lowered carbon emissions, Russia is not under the same pressure as fellow Kyoto countries to trim its output—making other countries wary of its plans for the banked AAUs.

In recent months, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has become more explicit about the effects of climate change when traveling abroad, while preferring to emphasize other benefits, such as “energy efficiency” and conservation, at home. This was evident after an unproductive BRIC meeting in April in Brasilia, where he threatened to pull out of Kyoto. 

“All countries, including developed and developing countries, should reach an agreement” on climate issues, he said. “Or if we do not agree on this [the common terms of carbon emissions reduction], Russia will not prolong its participation in the Kyoto agreement—you cannot have it both ways.” 

At home, Medvedev’s words were almost as strong in speaking this month to an expanded Russia Security Council meeting. “Everyone is talking about climate change now,” he said. “Unfortunately, what is happening now in our Central Regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past. This means that we need to change the way we work, change the methods that we used in the past.”

While these words may have some surprised observers, they merely reflect changes in Russia’s climate position that have been underway for more than a year. 

In June 2009, Medvedev surprised climate change watchers by announcing that Russia’s post-Kyoto target will be 10-15 percent below its 1990 baseline. This would translate to a significant increase in its current emissions, but it marked the first time any Russian leader had announced an emission target. 

Russia also participated quietly in the July 2009 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate—the 17 industrialized and developing countries that account for about 80 percent of global emissions. At the forum, the countries agreed on an aspirational goal that would stop world temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. Achieving that goal means developed countries must reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent within that time frame.

Additionally, before heading to the United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen last December, Medvedev signed the Russian Climate Doctrine, the first Russian statement of a climate change policy. The doctrine recognizes the harmful effect of climate change; recognizes its impact on economic, social, and political policies; and emphasizes adaptation to the effects of climate change. While general in content, it was the first official recognition that climate change requires serious governmental attention. 

In Copenhagen, Russia signed the fallback Copenhagen Accord arranged by President Obama, but played no significant role in formulating it. As part of the non-binding Accord, Russia committed to a 15-25 percent reduction from its 1990 emissions, while the United States pledged a 17 percent reduction from its 2005 emissions.   

Medvedev also upped his post-Kyoto pledge in Copenhagen—from the 10-15 percent emissions reduction announced in June to a 20-25 percent reduction—and pledged support for the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, which the Accord established. The $30 billion fund, to be spent in 2010-2012, seeks to tackle climate change issues, such as reducing emissions from deforestation and mitigating the efforts of emissions, in the least developed countries. 

The Accord was widely seen as a way to paper over Copenhagen’s failure to agree on a successor to Kyoto. But Medvedev surprised skeptics by taking it seriously and championing international action. In a February speech to Russian ministers and senior officials, he said:

“[The disappointing outcome at Copenhagen] is not a reason to sit back now and do nothing, because we are responsible for the state of our planet…We need to decide today how to make the most effective use of what has been achieved…and outline the best ways for aiding less-developed countries to fight climate threats. The new climate agreement represents a real chance for mass introduction [of] energy-efficient and low-emission technology….We are going to improve our energy efficiency and reduce our emissions regardless of whether or not there is an international agreement. This is in our own interest from both an economic and environmental point of view.” 

The link Medvedev made between energy efficiency and carbon emissions is critical in his strategy. Russia wastes appalling amounts of energy.  A World Bank study estimates that Russia could save 45 percent of its energy through cost-effective, energy-efficient measures.

During the past year, Medvedev has led a campaign for energy efficiency, which helped secure passage of far-reaching energy-efficiency legislation in December by the Russian Duma.  The law requires energy efficiency in buildings and appliances, mandates energy audits of major industrial plants, phases out the use of incandescent lamps, provides incentives for energy efficiency in apartment buildings, requires energy efficiency in government procurements, and introduces the use of energy service contracts. 
Russia also has made energy efficiency a priority in other international agreements. As part of the Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC)—the practical manifestation of the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations—an energy efficiency subgroup focused on financing energy-efficient projects, including those affecting public buildings and smart grids. And as part of the recent Clean Energy Ministerial in Washington, Russia joined international initiatives to make industrial and other large buildings, as well as equipment and appliances, more energy efficient.  

New Carbon-Reducing Initiatives

In another change, Russia is participating for the first time in Kyoto’s Joint Implementation (JI) program, which awards carbon credits to clean energy projects. Under this program, domestic companies and international partners can undertake carbon-cutting projects to earn Emission Reduction Units (ERUs), currently worth about $15 per metric ton of carbon saved.  The projects must be approved by the participating countries.

According to United Nations data, 103 projects, or 61 percent of those in the JI pipeline, would be in Russia. After ignoring the program for years, Russia’s leaders have embraced it and, in February, directed state-owned Sberbank to review the JI projects and recommend government action. Ten companies with 37 projects were considered in the first round and an initial 15 winners were announced in July. 

One of the approved projects is run by Russia’s Gazprom Neft—an oil arm of Gazprom, the largest extractor of natural gas in the world and the largest Russian company—along with Japanese companies Mitsubishi Corp and Nippon Oil. The project requires Gazprom Neft to use the associated petroleum gas at its Ety-Purovskove oil field that has been burned off—a practice known as gas flaring. The project has an estimated worth of 3.1 million ERUs. 

Gas flaring is an appalling waste of a precious resource throughout Russia. Nighttime satellite photos reveal its widespread use. Not only does gas flaring contribute to global warming, it also reduces revenue from gas sales and releases methane, sulfur, and nitrogen into the environment, which can harm humans. 

Belatedly, Russia’s leaders have confronted this waste. During Medvedev’s November 12 address to the Russian parliament, he said: “The government has discussed the issue on many occasions, and has promised to put an end to this disgrace. We really do need to take quick and decisive action, and no objections from the [oil] production companies should be accepted.”

Prime Minister Putin followed quickly by directing oil companies to achieve 95 percent capture of flared gas by 2012 or face substantial penalties. As Russia seeks ways to change its climate policies, the Gazprom Neft project is an example of how participating in UN programs and cooperating with the international community can also support Russian goals.  

Forming a New Climate Agreement  

One upside to the current fires is that Medvedev and Putin can be more explicit in describing the need to implement climate change measures to the Russian people. Alexander Morozov, chief economist at HSBC, told the Financial Times that as much as a third of Russia’s grain harvest and 1 percent of its GDP will be lost this year due to the dry weather and fires. Both have devastated Russia’s wheat harvest, and the fires’ thick smoke even shut down business in Moscow. Any apathy toward climate change should also be going up in smoke, providing public support for aggressive clean energy and environmental programs.  

Another upside is that the heat wave and fires should push Russia’s leaders to reach agreement on a major barrier to a new climate change protocol—the impasse over Russia’s AAUs. Resolving this issue will require compromise from all sides. 

Among the approaches being considered is to downgrade Russia’s AAUs to 50-20 percent of their original value in the successor to Kyoto. Better yet, Russia could agree to use the income from the sale of its AAUs for greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. Russia could also use the income to help finance its daunting need for energy efficiency and infrastructure investments.

The devastation in Russia should also remove another obstacle to reaching the next phase of Kyoto. Fully one-third of the global greenhouse gas emissions come from land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF), including croplands, grazing land, and revegetation. The Kyoto provisions covering them are incomplete, inconsistent, and inadequate. Any agreement must include a coherent and comprehensive approach to these issues. 

The Russian experience also shows the need to focus more focus on helping the developing world—particularly the least-developed countries—adapt to climate change with minimal adverse human, environmental, and economic hardship. Providing a better balance to discussions about mitigating the effects of climate change—often discussed in the developed world—and adapting to them would broaden global support for climate change actions. 

Making these changes won’t be easy. International delegates gathering in Bonn this month to plan for the next UN conference on climate change have already expressed little hope for progress. They’re mistaken. Russia’s newfound interest in addressing climate change issues and the recognition by other countries that climate change must be addressed quickly provide the chance of a major breakthrough. Otherwise, fires like the one in Russia could become all too common in the future.