Russia caught between coal and
Kyoto By Sergei Blagov
- 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.
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
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
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