Russia's signing onto Kyoto didn't signify any real interest in climate change. The only cost to the Kremlin was a bit of pride, and it's well known that Russia received the sweetest Kyoto deal of all. Because the benchmark year for measuring reductions was set at 1990, the collapse of Russian industry after Perestroika guaranteed that Russia would not be close to that level by 2012, Kyoto's deadline. Depending on the breaks, Russia may not approach 1990 levels for another 20 years. Thus not only does Russia not have to make any cuts in its emissions during the next four years, but it was handed thousands of Kyoto-stamped "emission reduction credits" - basically carbon stock that can be sold on the international market or saved for an unseasonably rainy day. Europe was so desperate for Putin's signature it also gave Russia millions of "carbon sink" credits for its vast tracts of virgin forests.
Far from the "economic Auschwitz" former Putin advisor Andrei Illiaronov claimed Kyoto would be for Russia, it turned out to be an economic pinata. Russia hasn't seen this many gift certificates since the last time the World Bank was in town.
(Incidentally, several people told me during the course of researching this article that it was widely suspected during Illiaronov's time at the Kremlin that he was on the payroll of ExxonMobil to keep Russia out of Kyoto. He has since moved on to become senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the libertarian D.C. think tank founded by oil magnate Charles Koch. ExxonMobil is a major Cato funder.)
It is a high irony of history that Russia played Zorro in a global environmental drama. Ever since the West's postwar awakening to environmental issues, Russia and her former Soviet satellites have provided an even more polluted counterpoint to capitalist consumer society. Shrouded in secrecy and smog, the eastern bloc was imagined as a vast and poisoned totalitarian wasteland frozen in a 19th-century vision of smokestack progress, drenched in acid rain and dotted with toxic weapons-testing ranges and dumps. The most famous Soviet disasters of the last century - Chernobyl, the Aral Sea - became powerful symbols of ecocide. When the Iron Curtain was lifted, the scene turned out to be even worse than imagined.
In some ways not much has changed from Soviet times. Russian industry is still dirty as hell. And to the dismay of energy analysts and climate activists, the country has no official conservation strategy; in 2000 Putin abolished the federal conservation body created under Yeltsin in the early 90s. Despite suffering ongoing economic losses as a result, Russia has shown little interest in modernizing its hugely inefficient pipelines, power plants, and transmission lines. According to observers of Russian energy policy, it is as if there is no one at the controls.
"There is a 40 percent potential for efficiency gains in Russia," says Vladimir Chuprov, chief energy researcher for Greenpeace Russia. "But the government acts as if gas and oil reserves are endless and we'll always be able to meet domestic needs and export demand. It refuses to think 20 years ahead. The environment doesn't figure in at all."
According to Chuprov, almost every second ton of carbon emissions in Russia represents wasted energy. This waste is created down the line, from archaic technology in generators to unregulated full-blast heating in apartment buildings all across the country. Even in the energy-conscious Greenpeace offices, employees are often forced to open all of the windows to counteract a constant and unwanted flow of heat.
This waste means that Russia's total emissions - still third highest in the world, trailing only the U.S. and China - are way out of line with its rump industrial base and shrinking population of 140 million. The waste is truly staggering: While Russia emits 11 tons of carbon per person per year, the average in OECD countries is two; the world average is four.