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Central Asia

Russia caught between coal and Kyoto
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for greater exploitation of the country's vast coal reserves, but this policy could clash with Moscow's commitments to reducing carbon dioxide emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

"By preparing to burn more coal for its energy needs, Russia aims to free more natural gas for lucrative exports to Western markets," Natalia Olefirenko, climate programs coordinator with Greenpeace Russia said. "It is a flawed approach, and it amounts to a sell-out of the Russian environment because growing use of coal is likely to adversely affect the country's ecological balance and cause acid rains."

Russia's coal reserves are estimated at 3,000 billion tonnes, which is nearly a third of the world's coal deposits. About 80 percent of the country's known coal deposits are in Siberia. Once a pillar of the Russian economy, coal went out of favor after the Soviet era. The Soviets had kept old mines open long after they had ceased to make profit. But government subsidies were slashed after 1993 and the coal sector could not compete any more with gas prices, kept artificially low to contain inflation. Electricity from coal is now twice as costly as power generation from gas.

The World Bank helped close loss-making coal mines and privatize others. In 1998 alone some 420,000 miners were laid off, and the World Bank has given Russia US$1.3 billion in loans to close mines and to pay for re-skilling of miners laid off. The coal sector still employs 320,000 people and produced 270 million tonnes of coal last year. But production was down 11 percent in the first half of this year, largely because the monopoly firm, Unified Energy Systems (UES), switched to gas for power generation.

UES managers say that it would cost $1 billion to refit 30 power stations for use of coal. That would include the cost of environmental protection. But not many companies that go for coal would have a budget for such safeguards. Greater use of coal without such protection threatens to increase the emission of carbon dioxide, which is blamed for global warming.

Putin has said that Russia was "inclined" to approve the Kyoto Protocol (the protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan). Under this, industrialized countries commit themselves to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in an effort to combat global warming.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa recently that "ratification will take place in the very near future". Kasyanov pointed out that Putin had taken the initiative in calling an international conference on climate change in Moscow next year.

The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect when nations that account for 55 percent of the 1990 emissions levels ratify the treaty. The European Union, other European states and Japan - which are expected to ratify the protocol - account for 39 percent. The US walked away from the Kyoto Protocol in March this year. But Russia's share is 17 percent and ratification by Moscow along with the others means that the Kyoto Protocol can become effective. Russia's latest pledges indicate that ratification may come by the end of this year.

But some environmentalists have their doubts about Russia's official pledges. The fact that the South Africa summit was given virtually no coverage in Russian media and the recent drive towards increased use of coal indicated that Russia was not moving towards the Kyoto Protocol, says Vladimir Zakharov, head of the Moscow-based Center of Ecological Policies.

(Inter Press Service)

Oct 3, 2002


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