Russia warms to Kyoto 29 May 2004
The Australian
Copyright 2004 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved


THE Kyoto Protocol was catapulted back on to the global agenda as Russia committed to signing the climate treaty and Hollywood released a blockbuster in which rising temperatures trigger an ice age that freeze-dries New York.

Despite President Vladimir Putin's promise to accelerate the process of ratifying the protocol in return for European concessions on entry to the World Trade Organisation, not everyone was convinced of Moscow's wisdom or sincerity. The Wall Street Journal was particularly scathing, accusing Putin of being shortsighted. If Russia, which produces 17 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases, signs, it would mean that countries producing 55 per cent had ratified the pact thereby activating an "ill-considered" treaty dreamed up in a "UN hothouse". The cost, according to the Journal, would be "hundreds of billions of dollars per year across the world economy, in addition to the opportunities foregone for real economic development".

The Australian Financial Review took a similarly cynical view on why Putin agreed to the WTO-Kyoto deal. "The more you look at this deal, the less it actually has to do with cutting greenhouse emissions." Russia needs the WTO in order to move to the next stage of economic development, while the West "needs Russia inside the global trading system as soon as possible but not at any price". Peter Foster, writing in Canada's Financial Post, also wondered why the EU was willing to barter WTO entry against "an agreement that was hatched by environmental alarmists and their bureaucratic handmaidens, who all think that free markets are a bad idea [but endless UN conferences are a good one]".

But did Putin's commitment to ratify Kyoto amount to a promise or a ploy? The Moscow Times's Greg Walters noted that "Putin stopped just short of offering his unequivocal support and that he had carefully fashioned an escape hatch for himself by saying that the real responsibility for ratification lies with the State Duma". But as Vladimir Kovalev in Transitions Online wrote, the Duma is stacked with Putin's supporters so getting approval was not an issue. Moreover, Russia would not have to cut emissions at all. The pact requires Russia in 2012 to be producing 1990 levels of greenhouse gasses. Thanks to the demise of so many Soviet-era enterprises, Russia's current output was between a half and one-third of 1990 levels. Russia also gained from the Kyoto/WTO agreement by not having to raise domestic gas prices as quickly as Europe had initially insisted, pointed out Anthony Latta in The Moscow News.

Not everyone, however, was breaking out the caviar and vodka. Putin still has to convince his powerful economic adviser Andrei Illarionov, who made his displeasure about Kyoto clear to Amity Shlaes in The St Petersburg Times. "It looks like it is very nice, similar to the way in which communism and socialism looked very nice," he said.

Despite Kyoto's talk of market-friendly mechanisms, its potential to become a supranational monster was, according to Illarionov, "a fact of life". Tech Central Station's Iain Murray also noted that Putin's apparent pledge on Kyoto came just one week after the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences issued a report that disputed the scientific basis of Kyoto. The report 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 stated, "the requirements of the Kyoto protocol are of a discriminatory character, and its mechanisms involve economic risks for Russia".

Given the academy's cold shoulder to Kyoto its members would probably be siding with most of the world's scientific community in slamming The Day After Tomorrow for its unbelievable plot. In the film the vice president, played by Dick Cheney look-alike Kenneth Welsh, keeps complaining that doing anything meaningful such as signing the Kyoto Protocol, would only bankrupt the economy. Suddenly all hell breaks loose and just about the only survivors of the tidal wave and ice storm that engulfs New York are wolves in the Bronx zoo.

Fuzzy science or not, Melbourne's The Age still thought that "the film's message about politicians ignoring scientists' warnings" made it so compelling that it might yet unseat President George W. Bush. Agreed Robert Semple in The New York Times: "Whatever its flaws, The Day After Tomorrow could do more to elevate the issue [of global warming] than any number of Congressional hearings or high-minded tracts." The film, Semple asserted, was sure "to inject the issue into a presidential campaign that so far seems determined to ignore it".