Nothing New on the Climate Front?
No. 4 2010 October/December
Igor A. Istomin

PhD in Political Science
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Department of Applied International Political Analysis
Acting Head of the Department


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Russia Changes Its Approaches to Climate Issues

From November 29 till December 10, 2010, Cancun, Mexico hosted the 16th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Over the recent decades it has become habitual to see the signing of any major international treaty herald the emergence of a new political and legal regime and the formation of bodies and agencies responsible for its execution. The work of such institutions is routine and remains a subject of interest for a handful of specialists. Yet this is not the case with the international climate regime. With every passing year the negotiations in this area draw ever more public attention.


Over the past two decades profound concern over climate change has swept the industrialized world and a growing number of developing countries. It has become a topic of active public debate and regular discussions in the media. According to a 2005 GlobeScan poll, residents of the developed countries put climate change in the third place (alongside poverty) on the list of the most significant challenges facing the modern world – behind terrorism (albeit slightly) and war. The growing attention to climate issues manifests itself in the rise of environmental parties in the European countries (according to recent polls in Germany, the Greens have come pretty close to the two leading political forces – the Christian-Democratic Union and the Social-Democratic Party of Germany). In the EU institutions, they have become one of the most powerful lobbying forces. Although the greatest concern about climate change continues to be characteristic of European societies, other developed countries are catching up with them in this regard. For example, in the United States the Obama administration tried to push through Congress a comprehensive package of legislative measures aimed at reducing the impact of the economy on climate. Despite the unsuccessful outcome of the vote, both the executive and the legislators expressed their intention to continue working in this direction, although both somewhat eased their ambitions.

Russian society has been demonstrating far less interest in climate change than the leading states. A probe into the public opinion of the climate problem in various countries by Gallup in 2007-2008 showed that about 85 percent of Russia’s population is aware of its existence. This figure corresponds roughly to the levels characteristic of countries in Central and Eastern Europe on the average, but it is far lower than in Western Europe, North America and Japan, where the rate exceeds 90 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of people in Russia in 2006 expressed concern or strong concern about global warming. At the same time, according to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), less than half of Russians are prepared to bear the burden of financial costs (even on a voluntary basis) to improve the environmental situation.

The gap between the awareness of the problem of climate change and the willingness to participate in its resolution distinguishes Russia from the developed countries. This can be explained in the context of contemporary sociological models. Back in the late 1970s, American political scientist Ronald Inglehart pointed to the emerging trend in the West towards the dominant role of post-material values. Inglehart maintained that in the second half of the 20th century the values of industrial society, primarily the desire to ensure physical and economic security, took deep root in the West. However, due to the long period of rapid economic growth and ever stronger sense of social security, new generations of people in developed societies attach more importance to the opportunities of self-realization and the quality of life. As a result, the people are not just paying more attention to environmental problems, but agree to bear the cost of their resolution. Moreover, having grown up in the conditions of relative wealth and prosperity, they become more sensitive to the problems of other societies and to global issues. In contrast to the Marxist formula “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” the interests of the new generations are formed not on the basis of similarities of their positions, but on the basis of discrepancies. A similar situation was observed in Russian history, too. Suffice it to recall the experience of the Decembrists (conspiracy by reform-minded army officers and their unsuccessful revolt in 1825), or the Narodniki (socially conscious members of the middle class of the 1860s and the 1870s). The fundamental distinction of the present-day situation in Western societies is that this phenomenon has become widely spread, it is detached from the feeling of patriotism and the sense of responsibility for the fate of less fortunate compatriots. It becomes universal, cosmopolitan.

Obviously, the economic and political turmoil that befell the Russian people over the recent decades have created not the best of all possible backgrounds for the promotion of post-material values. Meanwhile, according to a global survey by Gallup, only 39 percent of Russian citizens perceive climate change as a serious personal threat. Under these conditions it is natural that the task of preventing such changes is regarded in society as secondary, when placed next to the more pressing national goals.


Meanwhile, Russia is one of the most active participants in international climate talks. Its role in these negotiations stems from its position of one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, by virtue of its huge forest areas, it makes a significant contribution to the natural absorption of carbon dioxide – the main factor enhancing the greenhouse effect.

International climate negotiations have become regular over the past one and a half decades. At the same time, the approaching expiration of the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC makes them more concrete and intense.

The factors hindering their positive outcome are limited knowledge about climate processes, the changing balance of the economic powers in the world, and the geographical unevenness of the negative effects of environmental degradation. Current climate models are unable to clearly explain natural phenomena with a sufficient degree of accuracy. There remain large uncertainties about the adequacy of the scenarios of climate change. In recent years, major developing countries (especially, China and India) have joined the group of leaders in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, much of the accumulated pollution is a result of economic activities by the developed countries. Finally, the adverse effects of climate change are most strongly felt in small developing countries, which account for the smallest contribution to the anthropogenic impact on the environment. In particular, they threaten the physical preservation of a number of insular states of the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Currently, the most heated debates at the negotiations have unfolded over the comparative contribution of developed and developing countries to measures to mitigate climate change and combat its negative consequences. They are built around different interpretations of the principle of “common but differentiated” responsibilities enshrined in the UNFCCC. The difficulties being encountered in the negotiating process are due to the attempts by the participating countries to mingle the attainment of the common goal and the solution of their individual aims.

In fact, the work for the further strengthening of international regulation in the climate sphere runs into the “free rider problem,” well-described in scientific literature. It suggests attempts by some participants in the climate regime to shift the cost of its operation onto the others, and gain maximum advantage of the benefits of the regime at the same time. The worst risk for international action to prevent climate change and get adapted to its adverse effects is found in a situation where the “free rider’s model of behavior” becomes a common mode of action by most leading players.

At present, the transition of post-material values from the level of individuals to the level of states is weak. As before, governments continue to be guided primarily by pragmatic interests resulting from international competition. Developed nations accuse their partners in the developing countries of unwillingness to share responsibility for solving global environmental problems and of trying to squeeze out additional amounts of international aid. In turn, the latter recall the historical responsibility of the golden billion, whose economic prosperity was achieved at the cost of throwing the global ecosystem off balance. They suspect the developed nations of the intention to use climate change to limit the growth of new industrializing giants (China, India and Brazil) that will be able to challenge the continued global hegemony of the West.

Throughout most of the 2000s, the European Union stood out against the general background with its attempts to act as the leader in the negotiating process. In 2008 it unilaterally adopted a program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent and for building up the share of renewables in electricity production to 20 percent by 2020. In addition, on the eve of the conference in Copenhagen in 2009 it expressed the willingness to increase its commitments to reduce emissions up to 30 percent should other major polluters make proportionate pledges. At the same time, it is worth recalling that the EU has retained its leadership in the development and introduction of renewable energy sources. And that means the existence of an economic and technological reserve which can ensure the dominance of European companies in their respective markets in the case of global adoption of high standards restricting greenhouse gas emissions. However, the recent years have seen certain weakening of the EU’s positions at international climate negotiations. It became most obvious at the conference in Copenhagen, where the participants failed to reach agreement on the post-Kyoto period.

As a result, the negotiations on climate change have turned into a clash of rival interests. The lack of leadership, the high degree of distrust the parties feel towards each other and their unwillingness to assume substantial commitments obstruct the achievement of a compromise. The Copenhagen conference demonstrated that the chances the representatives of nearly 200 countries may come to an agreement are very slim. At a certain point it looked like a plausible solution had been found, when a small group of key countries prepared a draft document for its further adoption by all the participants. Nonetheless, that attempt ran against objections from the countries not represented in the group, who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the formulated compromise (the adoption of the text of a political declaration outlining the path towards a future agreement was blocked by a number of states led by Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, which claimed the others were dictating unacceptable decisions to them). Over the past year the participants not only failed to come nearer towards a compromise, but developed signs of certain regression in some areas. The Copenhagen conference showed once again that climate change talks require not only detailed knowledge of the positions the participating countries are taking, but also in-depth understanding of the motives behind them.


Russia’s position at international climate negotiations has undergone several transformations. At the Kyoto Protocol talks Russia pledged not to exceed the level of greenhouse gas emissions, achieved by 1990, in 2008-2012. Its participation in the protocol was prompted primarily by the factor of prestige and political considerations. For Russia, participation in the international climate regime was yet another confirmation it retained its place in the group of the leading nations. It was unimaginable for Russia to be included in the same category with the developing countries and, respectively, it could not but make commitments to limit emissions. However, Russia was determined to restore its economic and industrial might to the level attained by the moment the Soviet Union collapsed, so it sought to avoid any possible obstacles on this path – the more so as the climate problem was not regarded a priority in the conditions of a prolonged recession. Hence the proposed commitments were a compromise between the need to participate and the reluctance to burden oneself with additional costs. Another incentive for Russia emerged from the position of the U.S. administration. The United States said it was ready to make major commitments, provided there was a possibility of purchasing additional emission allowances from third countries. Such a mechanism was reserved in the document. Russia hoped for taking a leading position in this market as a major seller of quotas.

After power in the U.S. changed hands and George W. Bush took office, the U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol as inconsistent with American interests. This decision eliminated one of the major incentives to Russia’s participation. At the same time, there appeared an influential coalition of skeptics, led by presidential economics adviser Andrei Illarionov. In his view, compliance with the commitments under the Kyoto Protocol would slow down the just-started economic growth. At the same time, any action to mitigate climate change without the participation of the largest polluter, the United States, would be ineffective. In response to the skeptics’ arguments, the academic community declared its firm belief in the need for action to curb climate change and in the Kyoto Protocol as the first step in a long journey. There followed an active discussion and sharp – sometimes bitter – debate between the two camps. Nevertheless, it had little influence on the final decision in favor of ratification.

The United States’ actual withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol put Russia in a unique international situation. The future of the document depended entirely on its decision. In accordance with its provisions, the Protocol’s enactment required ratification by more than 55 signatories that accounted for a combined 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. Fulfilling the latter requirement without Russia’s participation would be impossible. In a situation like that there opened vast opportunities for diplomatic maneuvering. The supporters of the Protocol, above all the EU, were looking for ways to bring Moscow to their side. As a result, it secured the adoption of favorable provisions recognizing the contribution of managed forests to the absorption of emissions. At the same time, the European Union used Russia’s desire to join the WTO as the main incentive in exchange for a positive decision. Support from Brussels on this issue contributed to the Kyoto Protocol’s approval by the Russian leadership in late 2004. In the first half of the 2000s, one could observe the dominance of foreign policy motivation in Russian climate policies. Russia linked the climate negotiations with other issues, more important to it, and considered them part of a package deal.

After the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 2005, there began a new stage in the regime’s evolution. As has been noted above, that stage was associated with negotiations on a new agreement and on further commitments by countries after 2012. The Russian position at this stage combines the desire to retain a wide margin of maneuver and elements of a proactive approach. The latter primarily manifested itself in the Russian proposals to create incentives for more countries to make pledges to reduce emissions. In 2006, at a meeting in Bonn the Russian side organized a special presentation to explain its proposals. At the same time, Russia was one of the last states to declare that it was ready to assume emission reduction commitments under the new agreement. Moscow agreed to maintain emissions till 2020 at a level 10-15 percent lower than that of 1990. On the eve of the Copenhagen conference it declared its readiness to tighten restrictions to 25 percent. The specific level of commitments within the declared range was pegged to a number of conditions. In any case, Russia’s position does not imply any real reduction of the anthropogenic impact from the current level. According to official statistics, in pre-crisis 2007 Russia emitted 32 percent less greenhouse gases than before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Along with the international negotiations, measures were taken within the country in areas closely related to climate issues. In the first place, a task was set to achieve a significant, 40-percent increase of the economy’s energy efficiency. To this end, President Dmitry Medvedev signed a corresponding decree in the summer of 2008, and in late 2009 Russia adopted its Climate Doctrine and Federal Law on Energy Efficiency.

Russia’s position at the Copenhagen conference was distinct from all previous experiences in that it was based on deeper research into the likely effects of emission reductions on the economy. Different types of organizations, including universities, commercial companies, international organizations and NGOs had been employed to build and test the corresponding models. In contrast to the earlier attempts at forecasting, which relied on simple extrapolation of the existing trends into the future, or mechanical projection of the experience of other countries with similar conditions, new studies are based on concrete analysis of the situation in individual sectors of the economy, and with due regard for the factors that cause non-linear development. This analysis shows that, if Russia meets the identified energy efficiency goals, it can easily make commitments to limit emissions to 25 percent below the 1990 level till 2020, without sacrificing economic growth. Russia’s position at the Copenhagen conference and subsequent negotiations rests on these findings. Thus, the last few years have seen a shift in the motivation of Russian policy towards climate negotiations from predominantly foreign policy objectives to economic development requirements.


The climate change agenda, which is being discussed in Russian society with growing intensity, fits in well with the current national political discourse. The tasks of qualitative re-adjustment of the Russian economy, declared by the top leadership, have encouraged a renewed type of modernization ideology. Its highlights were formulated in President Medvedev’s article Russia Forward. In it, the author identified an ambitious task of transition to a fundamentally new quality of national development. While the focus in solving this problem is on socio/economic affairs, the Russian authorities see modernization as a complex phenomenon that affects practically all aspects of the life of society.

A stronger climate policy is an integral part of the national agenda the way the country’s leadership has formulated it. It can prompt measures to technically upgrade the Russian economy and to shift to more efficient use of the available resources. That the Russian leadership’s interest in the climate issues has been growing is seen in the approval in December 2009 of the Climate Doctrine; in a series of statements by the president, including his speech at the Copenhagen conference; and its discussion at a special meeting of the Security Council in March 2010.

At the same time, Russian climate policy formation has been rather inconsistent. The adopted doctrine is based on a systemic approach to the problem and takes account of the high uncertainty of research data, the diversity of the country’s natural conditions and of the effects of observed climate trends, the involvement of a wide range of national and private interests, and the need for the participation of different actors in the climate policy implementation. It relies on four main areas of activity: research to identify, explain and predict the development of climatic processes; measures aimed at adapting to the negative consequences of these changes; efforts to reduce anthropogenic impacts on climate; and full-scale participation in international cooperation on this issue. However, the operational side of the Climate Doctrine is too amorphous, and the proposed regulations are too vague. Consequently, it can hardly serve as a guide for forming a coherent, purposeful course of action. The flaws in the Doctrine’s content are a side effect of the desire to accommodate the positions of various interest groups. As has been noted above, Russian society is quite passive in its perception of environmental issues. The national scientific community of climate specialists is split. In contrast to situations observed in a majority of the developed countries, the proponents of the anthropogenic climate change theory, supporting the government’s active policy in this sphere and a global regulatory regime, are confronted with an influential coalition of skeptics, who question the international scientific mainstream opinion. Russia’s another special feature is its strong oil lobby, which is pretty wary of the climate policy. In this situation the end version of the Doctrine could not but prove a product of a compromise that reflects the diversity of viewpoints, but deprives it of due operability.

The implementation of the climate policy focuses on greater energy efficiency. Although important, this issue is only a part of the complicated set of problems that must be addressed within the framework of a comprehensive climate policy.

Russia is lagging farther behind not only the developed countries, but also the leading developing countries in the implementation of new renewable energy sources. Over the past five years, China has made an impressive leap forward in the development of wind energy and significantly outpaced the rate of commissioning such plants in the U.S. and the EU. Some countries, such as Indonesia and Turkey, are rapidly increasing their share of electricity produced with the use of geothermal energy. Brazil, along with the United States, is firmly in the lead in the production of ethanol fuel for engines. Renewable energy sources are still unable to challenge traditional hydrocarbons, but their share in the world energy balance is steadily growing. Meanwhile, the Russian Energy Strategy extending till 2030 delays the priority development of renewable energy sources till the third, final phase of its implementation. Further development of the current trends in the world slowly but surely weakens the traditional position of Russia’s main exports – oil and gas – and also enhances the country’s technological backwardness in the fast-growing global market. In a word, it is in stark conflict with the strategy postulated by the Russian leadership.

The unduly delayed development of documentation for the implementation of joint projects in Russia under the Kyoto Protocol is another illustration of poor attention to a coherent climate policy. Meanwhile, these projects could provide access to the latest technologies in energy saving at the expense of foreign investors in exchange for greenhouse gas quotas. Russia could have benefited from this mechanism from the very beginning of the period of these commitments under the Protocol in 2008, but the first contest for such projects started only this year.

Speaking at the Copenhagen conference, Dmitry Medvedev rightly emphasized Russia’s global leadership in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, one must not forget that this situation is not a result of a well-considered policy, but a product of an acute economic crisis. According to the International Energy Agency findings, Russia ranks third in the absolute volume of greenhouse gas emissions. Even more alarming are the Agency’s conclusions that Russia has the highest level of emissions per one unit of the GDP among the top five polluter countries – significantly higher than that of the U.S. and even China. These data reflect the extreme energy ineffectiveness of the Russian economy.


The heated debate on the causes, direction and consequences of climate change continues by both scientific community and politicians at international negotiations. However, the level of the existing knowledge does not allow for unequivocal conclusions on these issues, while international talks are largely detached from the academic discussions and embrace too many different interests related to energy security, the hydrocarbon markets and technology transfers. As a result, the primary problem fades into the background, and international negotiations on climate increasingly resemble talks about climate talks. In these circumstances it has become obvious that, despite all the difficulties, measures to strengthen international regulation in this area will continue, although at this point it remains unclear what form it may eventually take. Even if there is no national policy in this area at all, the future regime will largely determine the conditions for Russia’s foreign economic and foreign policy activity and the operation of Russian corporations abroad.

The governments of the leading developing countries are in a similar situation. In the present conditions they implement the strategy of double response. While maintaining and even building up their rhetoric about the historical responsibility of the developed countries and the need to make allowances for the disastrous socio/economic position of their populations and their technological backwardness, they simultaneously seek to prepare themselves for competing in the field of environmental innovations. They try to neutralize the competitive advantages of the developed countries, as the international climate regime undergoes change.

In many respects Russia adheres to similar positions. At international negotiations, it never misses the chance to recall its status of a country in transition to a market economy, to emphasize the value of hydrocarbon exports in the development of the national economy, and to draw attention to the role of national forests in the absorption of greenhouse gases. However, the strategy’s other component – related to innovation development – does not enjoy enough attention.

Inactivity with respect to the introduction of new technologies that reduce human-induced pressures on the environment harms Moscow’s positions at international negotiations. During the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol the factor of Russia’s participation played a key role. Today major attention is being attached to prospects for reaching an agreement within the triangle of the U.S., the EU and China. Russia has been largely sidelined. A situation like this reduces its possible contribution to the further evolution of the international climate regime.

It will be in Russia’s interests to conduct a balanced policy in which international and domestic aspects would enhance each other. Setting ambitious goals in climate protection and assuming high but realistic commitments with due regard for their implementation will give an additional impetus to the country’s economic development.

A well-charted climate policy could form an important component of a system of measures to modernize the country. It implies rapid introduction of innovations that contribute to the formation of the “knowledge economy.” Moreover, the point at issue is not just technological and economic factors of development. As was stated in this article, a responsible attitude to nature and to solving global problems indicates a shift of values. It becomes an integral feature of a country that has embarked on the track of building a scientific and information society. Regrettably, the possible significance of this activity remains underestimated in Russia today.