As the world waits, Russians are battling over how Moscow should use its power to make or break the Kyoto Protocol, the international pact to head off global warming.
President Vladimir Putin has been dithering for the past year over whether to ratify the agreement, and thus put Russia in league with more ecology-minded states like Canada and the European Union, or to line up with the more growth-focused nations like the US and Australia that are boycotting it.
During a recent Moscow visit by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mr. Putin hinted that Russia might soon join the regime, which requires that developed countries reduce their output of the "greenhouse gas" carbon dioxide by 5.2 percent over the 1990 levels in under a decade. But at a Moscow climate change conference last November, Putin shocked scientists by joking that sharp climate changes could be a boon for Russia. "If there is warming in Russia, then we will need to spend less money on fur coats and our grain harvests will increase," he said.
The Kremlin's long-running tease over Kyoto reflects a genuine, unresolved debate concerning the best route for Russia to redevelop its economy back from the massive deindustrialization and contraction that followed the collapse of communism. The debate has intensified ahead of a May 20 deadline for Russian state bodies to advise Putin.
"Opponents of ratifying Kyoto tend to be big businesses who want our economy to remain oriented on fossil fuels and the export of raw materials," says Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, a former environment minister for Russia and current director of the official Institute of Water Problems. "Those who favor ratification want Russia to free itself from dependence on oil exports and get on with postindustrial development."
The consensus in Russia's scientific community appears to be that global warming is a fact, and that spreading industrialization is the likely culprit. Carbon dioxide is mostly produced by burning fossil fuels in industries, thermal power stations, and automobiles.
"Over the past 30 years our winters have become progressively warmer," says Alexander Bedritsky, head of the Russian government's Meteorological and Environmental Monitoring Service. "The most alarming consequence is warming in our permafrost zones, where a change of one or two degrees could melt the soil and threaten houses, roads, and pipelines."
The best-known opponent of joining Kyoto is the Kremlin's official economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who last month bombastically denounced the treaty as "a global Auschwitz.... The Kyoto Protocol is a death pact, however strange it may sound, because its main aim is to strangle economic growth in countries that accept its requirements."
The Kyoto deal, reached in 1997 and already endorsed by almost 100 countries, requires that developed states representing 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions must ratify it before it can become international law. States accounting for about 40 percent have already signed on to Kyoto, while the US, which emits 30 percent of the world's CO2, has opted out. That leaves Russia, with a "quota" of around 20 percent, holding an effective veto over the entire plan.
The quota treats Russia as if it were still the USSR in 1990, a highly industrialized state responsible for a fifth of the world's CO2 emissions. Mr. Illarionov told a December meeting at the independent Moscow Carnegie Center that post-Soviet Russia is actually a developing economy, like China; developing countries are exempt from Kyoto restrictions. Due to the severe economic slump over the past decade, Russia's CO2 emissions have plummeted. However, Putin has set a national goal of doubling Russia's gross domestic product by 2010. "The Kyoto Protocol discriminates against Russia," Illarionov said. "Russia, which now actually accounts for just 6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, will have to implement reductions while China, which accounts for 13 percent, has no obligations and the US, which accounts for almost a third, has rejected them altogether."
Environmentalists argue that Kyoto offers Russia a way to avoid Soviet-style, energy-intensive growth and leapfrog into the future. They point out that other nations, such as Britain, have achieved high growth rates while reducing CO2 emissions. Britain did this largely by replacing old coal-fired power stations with natural gas ones. "If we switch to cleaner energy sources and available high technologies we can modernize our economy and stay well within the Kyoto quotas," says Natalya Oleferenko, a Greenpeace-Russia project manager.
Russia now produces far less carbon gas than in 1990 - at least one third less, according to most experts. Under the terms of Kyoto, it could sell that shortfall to bigger polluters - a business that advocates say could yield profits for Moscow of up to $10 billion annually. "If we handle the excess quotas skillfully, the resulting golden shower could jump-start modernization of our whole economy," says Ms. Oleferenko.
But Russian skeptics insist that "quota" sales are pie-in-the-sky, with nobody offering guarantees. "Who would buy our excess polluting capacity?" says Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, an independent think tank. "The US will not join Kyoto, and developing countries are exempt. Western Europe has agreed to comply with the protocol and cut its own emissions. It's obvious that there are no paying customers for Russia in this deal."
Oleferenko complains that the issue has become hostage to international relations, with Putin alternately entertaining the anti-Kyoto views of US President Bush and the European enticements for Russia to get on board. "The ecological and economic aspects have been shoved aside," she says. "Now it all depends on US pressure or European concessions."