Russia the next climate recalcitrant - Printable Version
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Russia the next climate recalcitrant - --- - 11-27-2008 10:35 PM
Russia the next climate recalcitrant
Peter Wilson, Europe correspondent | November 17, 2008
Article from: The Australian
THE melting of the Arctic ice cap has created an awkward new threat to international climate change talks by convincing senior officials in Moscow that Russia stands to reap an economic bonanza from ice-free northern oceans.
Sightings of exhausted polar bears swimming in waters that were once thick with ice floes have fuelled calls for more urgent action on climate change, but the heaviest thawing in thousands of years has also raised hopes of new shipping routes and access to long-frozen oil and gas fields.
"The Russians are now showing a dangerous indifference to the whole issue of climate change because they have this perception they might actually benefit from climate change," says former British government adviser on environment policy Nick Mabey, who heads E3G, a London-based environmental lobby group and think tank.
"That perception is not supported by the science, because the drastic climate change we are seeing in the Arctic will have enormous effects right around the world. But the worrying thing is that they (the Russian Government) do seem to think they won't be severely damaged by climate change."
Analysts and negotiators in Moscow and other capitals say Russia has taken "a backseat role" in negotiations about a new treaty to fight global warming, and warn that Russia could replace the Bush administration as the leading obstacle to a new Kyoto-style agreement.
Russia's status as the potential recalcitrant at the treaty summit to be held in Copenhagen next year follows China's improved efforts to reduce its carbon emissions and the election of new governments in the US and Australia, the only wealthy countries to have baulked at the Kyoto Treaty.
Russia's pivotal role is likely to be underlined when negotiators meet in Poland in two weeks for the last major get-together ahead of next year's Copenhagen summit, which is aimed at finding a new framework for when the Kyoto pact ends in 2012.
"Unfortunately, it is a common view within the Russian Government that the whole issue of climate change is important but not urgent," says Alexey Kokorin, the Moscow-based climate change analyst for international conservation group WWF.
"Instead of seeing threats and dangers, the most important government people here think an open Arctic Ocean will actually be a good thing."
The melting icecap has raised the prospect of new shipping passages that could slash trading costs and times on routes such as from Europe to China and Japan.
The North Pole may soon be covered in blue waves in summer for the first time in human history. The entire Arctic Ocean has not been free of ice in summer for more than a million years, but analysts believe this could happen again sometime between 2013 and 2040.
Longer shipping seasons could cut the cost of developing Russia's far north, open lucrative fishing grounds and make it easier to exploit oil and gas fields estimated to hold a quarter of the world's undiscovered reserves.
"That means Russia could easily end up being the big problem at Copenhagen," Kokorin says.
Russia enjoyed an easy ride when the Kyoto Treaty came into force in 2005 because it was required only to reduce its carbon emissions from the comparison year of 1990, when the old Soviet economy was producing enormous amounts of pollution.
The dramatic reduction in Russian industrial activity that had occurred since 1990 meant Russia did not have to produce any real cutbacks in emissions.
Dmitri Zenghelis, a fellow at the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs who was a senior official on Britain's influential Stern report on climate change, says Russia "will clearly need some sort of compensation from other countries to convince them that it is in their national interest to make any real sacrifices to fight climate change".
"Apart from increased access to the Arctic region, they think they will benefit from climate change through things like lower heating costs and longer growing seasons for farmers," he says.
"The truth is that even though Russia has smaller risks than some other countries, it still faces a big downside from climate change. The melting of permafrost in the north, for instance, will cause so much subsidence that they will have to rebuild a lot of infrastructure."
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Tom Picken says the Russians are being "amazingly short-sighted".
"They have to realise that if you are in a plane that is going to crash, it doesn't really help you to be sitting in first class and thinking you are better off than the other passengers. The whole plane is going down."