Russia and the Kyoto Protocol

Ben Coleridge | December 11, 2010.

The Russian Federation has announced its decision not to sign up to the second round of the Kyoto Protocol. Without going into detail on Russia’s arguments and reservations about the protocol, there are a few background details which it’s important to remember.

Despite President Medvedev’s announced desire for Russia to play a constructive role in the movement to reduce global emissions, Russia looks at this issue through the lens of strategic imperatives.

In the West many assume that Russia’s eye is fixed on competing economically with Europe. But in fact, Russians are increasingly aware of China’s economic and military power, arrayed as it is along Russia’s far eastern borders. And with China refusing to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Russia is wary of hamstringing itself.

Whereas throughout the twentieth century, the Soviet Union interacted with China its junior partner, with economic stagnation and demographic decline, Russia risks being relegated to the position of junior partner to China (if it isn’t already). So a key imperative for President Medvedev is to rebuild Russian economic power. In particular Russia’s leaders are focused on re-building and modernizing Russian industry which suffered catastrophically with the advent of perestroika in the early 1990s.

This task has been made all the more pressing by the recent Global Financial Crisis. From mid 2008-mid 2009 Russian GDP dropped by up to 10 percent due to the Global Financial Crisis.

The recent crisis hit Russia hard. Take one example, a regional city called Yaroslavl where I’ve spent some time. Yaroslavl is an industrial city which in 2009 saw jobs disappear and factories temporarily close. I was living in Yaroslavl during the Copenhagen summit. Many workers struggled to support themselves and their families, like the young factory worker I met who is now dealing with health problems after working continuous day and night shifts for six months so that he could also support his unemployed parents.

I remember talking to a friend who worked at a local petroleum enrichment plant. He didn’t believe in global warming, asking me the question, ‘why should we sacrifice lives and jobs for some irrelevant agreement?’ When it’s minus twenty-five, you have experienced extreme and recurring economic insecurity for the last two decades, and your entire community relies on heavy industry for its livelihood, the idea of downsizing factories and reducing emissions isn’t appealing.

Being in Russia during the Copenhagen summit, I was left with the impression that global warming is not a headline issue as it is in Australia for example. There were no protests or demonstrations in favour of emissions cuts and the mainstream media paid little or no attention to the summit. Of course, this might be explained by the fact that in Russia, the media is state controlled and you need an official permit to hold a demonstration. But it was also clear that many Russians, young Russians included, do not see global warming as a pressing challenge requiring Russia’s cooperation. The young people I met in Yaroslavl seemed relatively unconcerned with climate change as an issue; their energy was focused on graduating from university, finding work in a difficult job market and making enough money to be able to move out of their parents’ small three room flat.

Instead, Russians and the Russian leadership are focused on economic revival, reversing rapid demographic decline and strategic competition with their neighbours.

Further reading:

Down and Out In Yaroslav

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