Carbon-credit dispute threatens new climate deal

Russia is expected to exceed targets for cutting emissions, but it is mostly the result of the collapse of the Soviet economy rather than policy.
Russia is expected to exceed targets for cutting emissions, but it is mostly the result of the collapse of the Soviet economy rather than policy. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./bloomberg News)

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By Philip P. Pan
Monday, November 30, 2009

MOSCOW -- Russia is on track to far exceed its targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto climate-change treaty, but its success could derail efforts to reach a new accord against global warming, according to officials and analysts following the negotiations.

At issue in the thorny dispute is the huge surplus of carbon credits that Russia -- the world's third-largest producer of energy-related greenhouse gases -- is amassing by keeping emissions under generous 1997 Kyoto Protocol limits. The Kremlin has insisted that the credits be carried over into a new agreement, but environmentalists say that would cripple any treaty by making it much cheaper for countries to buy credits than cut emissions.

"You've got an elephant in the room that nobody is paying attention to," said Samuel Charap, a Russia scholar at the Center for American Progress in Washington, arguing that the Obama administration needs to take up the issue with Russia's leaders.

The dispute is unlikely to be settled when global leaders meet next month in Copenhagen for an international summit on climate change, and Charap and others warn that Russia's hoard of credits could allow it to play a last-minute spoiler in the talks. "If you want an ambitious agreement, then Russia's potential resistance can be extremely damaging," he said.

When the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, Russia is expected to post the largest absolute drop in emissions from 1990 levels of any of the countries that signed the treaty. But the decline is almost entirely the result of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet economy rather than environmental measures by the government. Critics say Moscow doesn't deserve to keep its carbon credits because it didn't earn them with any special effort.

Russia says that how its emissions plunged is irrelevant. What matters, its negotiators say, is that the reduction was real and substantial -- large enough to cancel out the rise in emissions in the United States over the same period. They portray the issue as a matter of fairness and national pride, often linking the emissions decrease to the severe economic hardship that the country suffered in the 1990s.

"It may not have been intentional, but we went through very difficult times and paid a high price for this reduction," said Igor Bashmakov, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency in Moscow who has advised the Kremlin on climate-change policies. "We've already done it, while other countries are just talking about it."

He said it is important to carry over Russia's carbon surplus to recognize its contribution to the global effort and establish a "strategic reserve" of credits that would allow Russian leaders to commit to further emissions cuts with confidence.

Like the world's developing nations, Russia says it needs to pursue rapid-growth policies that raise emissions because its living standards lag behind those of wealthier countries. While emissions are down 35 to 40 percent since 1990, they have climbed nearly 15 percent since 1998.

In June, Russia offered to cap emissions at no more than 10 to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, a modest goal widely criticized by environmental groups because it would have allowed an acceleration in emissions growth. But European leaders said this month that President Dmitry Medvedev had signaled behind closed doors a willingness to commit Russia to staying 20 to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

To meet that new goal without slowing economic growth, Bashmakov said Russia must follow through on ambitious plans to improve energy efficiency and expand its use of renewable energies. Because that task is so difficult, he said, Russia needs to keep its carbon surplus as a backup.

But Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of the local environmental group Ecodefense, said Russia should set a more challenging target -- maintaining current emissions levels through 2020 -- and give up its carbon surplus. "We don't need it, and it doesn't help cut emissions," he said.


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