"Russia is a northern country and if temperatures get warmer by two or three degrees Celsius it's not that bad - we could spend less on warm coats and agricultural experts say that grain harvests would increase further." Thus, Russian president Vladimir Putin jokingly put it in 2003, opening a major international conference on climate change in Moscow. For long, Russia was hesitant to signing the Kyoto protocol on global climate change, before Moscow eventually subdued to international pressure in 2004.
Let's face it: Environmentalism is simply not something one would expect from Putin and his crowd of siloviki and oil barons. As Russia signed the Kyoto protocol in November 2004, it was against the strong advice of both the Ministry for Industry and Energy and the Russian Academy of Sciences. In exchange, Moscow received EU support for Russia's admission to the WTO, why the Kremlin probably considered the deal a fair trade. Warm feelings for preventing the greenhouse effect had little to do with Putin's position on Kyoto.
Russia's traditionally energy intensive industries would normally vouch for a negative stance on limiting the country's greenhouse gas emissions. However, this has posed no great problem for Russia, as the Kyoto protocol is calculated on the 1990 emission levels. Given the economic and industrial collapse of the early 1990s, Russia still has a long way to go before reaching such levels again. Instead, it has been argued that the country might actually benefit from the Kyoto protocol by selling emissions credits to other countries. With the current economic boom in Russia, though, the deal is increasingly questioned for concerns that it might hamper industrial growth. Not surprisingly, the mighty energy sector is one of the greatest critics of the Kyoto protocol. However, this might paradoxically become the opposite in a few years' time.
Yesterday, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom declared that its export of natural gas to Europe had decreased by 16%, as compared to the same period last year. The reason for Gazprom's drop in output was evidently warmer weather in Europe, leading to decreased consumer demand. Also, exports to the FSU dropped by 15%, and the supply to Russian consumers by 11% during the same period.
While it is still too early to say whether this winter's mild weather is due to global warming, it is quite clear that if this tendency would become permanent in years to come, it would have a grossly negative impact on international gas demand and prizes. One obvious loser of such a development would be Russia's energy sector, which constitutes the engine for the country's economic growth. Thus, if global heating would put a check on energy prizes, Russia's energy-dependent economy is a candidate for severe crisis.
So, should we expect Gazprom executives to turn into ardent environmentalists? Will Ivanov and Medvedev campaign to stop global warming for next year's presidential elections? Most probably not! Still, one never knows. When it comes to realities, Russian politicians are usually swift to change opinions if money is at stake. If plunging energy prizes would hit Russian pockets, we might witness an eventual shift in Kremlin views on global warming. As we have still to see the true consequences of the greenhouse effect, it remains uncertain how fast an impact it will have on global temperature levels. The forms of and extent to which global warming will affect Russia is thus for the future to decide.