Russia Ratifies Kyoto Protocol

LAST week the Russian Duma, its lower house of parliament, ratified the Kyoto Protocol with an overwhelming majority. The Cabinet had last month approved Russia joining the international covenant, yet there had been fears of a more fierce contest in parliament given the sharp and unusually vocal divisions even at the highest levels of government. Clearly president Putin’s strong backing had decisively won the day.
The Protocol is the major operative outcome of the tortuous and highly contentious global negotiations underway since 1997 as part of the International Framework Convention for Climate Change (IFCCC). Even though these columns have extensively covered the issue during the long drawn out negotiations, readers may find a brief recap useful.

The Kyoto Protocol governs emissions of 6 major greenhouse gases (GHGs), chiefly carbon dioxide and methane generated mostly as a result of burning fossil fuels in power plants, industries and vehicles. GHGs accumulate in the upper layers of the atmosphere like a blanket trapping heat below it resulting in climate change, increasing temperatures and rise in sea-levels.

The Protocol stipulates that developed countries and the industrialised former Socialist countries in Eastern Europe should stabilise GHG emissions at 1990 levels by 2005 and reduce emissions by 5.1 per cent by 2012 mainly through deployment of improved technologies and shifting to non carbon-based energy. Developing countries on the other hand do not have obligations during the same period but would be called upon to begin reductions in the next phase after 2012, in a manner to be negotiated beginning next year, while they are assisted by developed countries through technology transfer and monetary assistance.

In order to take effective, the Protocol was required to be ratified by the concerned legislative bodies (not merely signed by the governments of the day) of at least 55 per cent of signatory countries, which more importantly, must account for at least 55 per cent of GHG emissions. Till last month, as many as 124 countries (not including India or China) had ratified the agreement representing 44 per cent of global GHG emissions. The USA generates a mammoth 36 per cent of global emissions and, surprising nobody, had walked out of the Treaty in 2001 soon after George W Bush became president. If Kyoto were ever to become a reality, it was imperative that Russia joins up since it contributes 17 per cent (all figures with 1990 as baseline). With the Duma ratification, the 55 per cent target has been crossed. There now remains what is expected to be a routine endorsement by the Russian Senate and signature by president Putin. In about a year, when the United Nations completes all other formalities, the Kyoto Protocol will finally come into force.

With this, despite the numerous shortcomings of the Treaty, it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that we are witnessing turning point in human history, in several significant ways this article proposes to discuss.

But first let us look at how Russia finally agreed to ratify the Protocol after earlier refusing to do so and, given the US holdout position, virtually threatening to bring the entire effort to naught.


Russia had long been sceptical about joining the Treaty on the grounds, similar to those advanced by the US, that it would impose unacceptable economic costs and made no secret about its reservations. Even as late as last year, despite pressure from many quarters especially the European Union, Russia was digging its heels using one excuse or another. It even argued that it needed more time in order to translate documents into Russian! It then wanted to convene a special Conference to re-discuss the science of climate change, virtually taking the issue back to its beginnings more than a decade ago.

Strong sections of domestic opinion continued to oppose Russia joining the Treaty as they felt it would hinder its economic development by putting curbs on energy use at a time when Russia could ill afford expensive new technologies. Andrei Illarionov, president Putin’s economic advisor, a staunch and outspoken opponent, said even immediately after the Cabinet decision: “It is a forced decision, it’s a political decision… not a decision we took happily” and that it would make president Putin’s promise of doubling gross domestic product in a decade unattainable.

The political reasons were chiefly the European Union’s inexorable pressure on Russia to accede to the Kyoto Protocol in return for EU support for Russia’s admission into the WTO. And that’s a story in itself, as discussed below, not least because of the clear and sharp differences on the issue between the EU and the US and their long-term political significance. That Russia finally chose to go along with the EU rather than with the US conveys its own message to the world.

But president Putin pushed through the decision for economic reasons as well.

At an earlier Conference of Parties (Marrakech, 2002) negotiating the Protocol, Russia, realising its crucial value, demanded and obtained huge concessions as a condition for agreeing to sign on.

Part of the Treaty being negotiated were provisions allowing for “emission trading”, that is, countries emitting below their targets being able to “sell” the “carbon credits” thus earned to countries emitting above their permitted levels, the idea being to provide incentives for lower emissions, although it also provides an alibi by allowing polluters to pay for high emissions rather than reduce them. Emission credits can also be earned by paying for “carbon sinks” such as afforestation including in other countries, the theory being that since forests absorb carbon dioxide, net emissions to the atmosphere would be lowered. Russia forced a deal in which the then drop in emissions (close to 30 per cent below 1990 baseline levels) due to its steep economic decline were recognised as a new baseline for calculating “carbon credits”.

Now, when the Russian economy is recovering, it still has emission credits to sell and stands to make windfall profits. Russian deputy prime minister Zhukov has said that Russia is likely to approach its permitted Kyoto target quotas by 2012 only if GDP grew by an unlikely 9 to 10 per cent a year. Meanwhile, some estimates put the possible Russian gains through emissions trading to be as high as 10 billion US dollar (Rs 50,000 crore) over the next 10 years!


Throughout the prolonged negotiations, the US played spoiler and pulled out its entire bag of tricks from cajoling, bullying to outright blackmail in order to derail or sabotage the Treaty. The US had come a long way since the early climate change conferences when the then Democratic vice president Al Gore championed the cause of a global treaty. Huge pressure was mounted by US special interests groups, especially oil and energy corporates, the automobile industry and conservative economic and business groups. Former president Bill Clinton, also a “liberal” Democrat, had signed the Treaty but did not submit it to Congress for ratification for three whole years of his second term in office. When president Bush took office, backed (some would say actually steered) by geopolitical neo-conservatives and special interest groups, with close friends in the oil and energy sectors, it took him no time at all to walk out of the Treaty.

This was not an isolated act. The US under Bush, with the by now well-known neo-con aversion to multilateralism, also walked out of international Treaties on Biological & Chemical Weapons, the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty or CTBT — so much for US concerns about weapons of mass destruction — and abrogated the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty between the US and Russia.

With the US being far and away the largest carbon polluter on the planet, its stand on the Kyoto Protocol has exposed its utter lack of concern for the common good vis-à-vis the interests of large corporates and MNCs, asserting the right to a high-consumption life-style in the US at the cost of other countries and peoples, indeed of the very survival of life on earth.

Whereas the EU tried its best to avoid a split among the leading advanced capitalist countries, US obduracy left it no option except to continue on its own path, strongly advocating the cause of the Treaty. The EU has already, even before the Treaty comes into effect, adopted legislation enforcing reductions in carbon emissions with some countries such as Germany targeting 30 per cent reductions by the end of the decade!

Other staunch US allies such as Britain, Japan and Canada who tried their best to bridge the divide and persuade other countries to fall in line with impossible US demands finally gave up and have endorsed the Treaty. Today, the US is totally isolated with the exception being Australia, with its staunchly Conservative government headed by John Howard having recently been elected for its fourth successive term in office, and some fossil-fuel dependent countries such as Saudi Arabia. And even Australia is now apprehensive about its isolation, partly because of not very veiled EU threats of sanctions.

The unilateral US invasion of Iraq, much against the opinion of its allies in Europe and elsewhere, and defying world opinion expressed in the apex international body the United Nations, and dragging into the war unenthusiastic countries with token military contributions merely to convey the idea of a “coalition of the willing”, has no doubt underlined the US isolation in world affairs and an unprecedented revulsion of US policies worldwide.

But the US isolation on the Kyoto Protocol has special significance. It is little wonder that Russia’s ratification has been greeted with loud cheers by the EU, especially Germany, and the UN secretary general, not without barbed comments aimed against the US. It is the first International Treaty to have been forged and taken effect (barring some formalities) without the US.  This is bound to have serious implications and long-term ramifications in the battle against world imperialism led by the US.


With the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect, all countries will have to take effective measures to reduce GHG emissions. Without the US coming on board, the target of around 5 per cent emission reductions would be difficult to achieve but even the US, under pressure at home and abroad, has announced unilateral measures to check GHG emissions and adopt cleaner technologies. Despite all the weaknesses built in to the Treaty such as permitting “emissions trading” or carbon sinks instead of actual emission reductions, there is little doubt that GHG emissions will become a reality sooner rather than later as has happened with ozone depleting substances.

In the short term the Treaty would mean more energy efficient technologies so that emissions are minimized and better demand management through changes in lifestyle and consumption patterns as well as through technological interventions minimizing energy use. In the medium term, one would see an increasing adoption of alternative non-fossil sources of energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal energy as well as, despite “Green” opposition, nuclear energy too. Hydrogen-based technologies and fuel cells are being rapidly developed and hydrogen-based automobiles are being readied for commercial deployment within a decade.

The burning of carbon-bearing fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas were the basis for the Industrial Revolution and are the foundation for today’s economy worldwide. In the long term, the Kyoto Protocol is a harbinger of a decisive shift away from this system towards a new non-carbon based era.