Six things Russia has to tell UN climate talks and the world

Russia’s climate chief on pre-2020 ambition, biased conclusions and NGO anger the Warsaw talks

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By Olga Dobrovidova in Warsaw

In the chaotic hours of the last official COP19 day, Russia’s head of delegation and special envoy for climate change, Alexander Bedritsky, met with RTCC’s Olga Dobrovidova and talked about pre-2020 ambition, biased conclusions and, of all things, understanding the frustration of NGOs.

Oddly enough, this will mostly be not about the madness unraveling around us here in Warsaw – on the ADP text, the Russian attitude seems to be “eh, whatever, wanted much more but this will do too”, and other non-technical issues are not the country’s priority so far. So, use this as a chance to step away from the overtime drama for a moment.

The Russian Federation, fifth largest GHG emitter in the world, is a valued guest in the lower echelons of Climate Change Performance Index, a metric for evaluating domestic and international climate policy and practice – mostly for lack of initiative, but also because after reaching a post-Soviet low somewhere around 1997, emissions have been mostly growing, with a short break for the 2008 recession.

Climate Action Tracker, another assessment tool, also lists Russia’s 2020 target of reducing emissions by 25% from 1990 levels as “inadequate”, stating that their commitments by 2020 are “above business as usual projections”. The main concern, of course, is that in this time of dire need, Russia still plans to increase emissions, not ambition.

“We hear and understand the call to increase targets that is about to be recorded in the conference decisions. But in this case, some countries are in an even worse position than Russia. At the end of the day, we cannot always be the donor and do other countries’ job for them”, said Bedritsky.

He strongly defended Russia’s right to grow that stems from the country’s status as an economy in transition. (On a side note, so far from the “cumulative statements” that are out there it’s not really clear how long that transition could be – the Russian folk wisdom says that a) there’s nothing more permanent than temporary structures; and b) redecorating a flat is not a process, it’s a condition).

Bedritsky also dismissed some experts’ views that Russia’s negative economic outlook for this decade should lead to reconsidering the goal as “talk”, as opposed to concrete decisions of the government, that cannot serve as basis for climate policy. He noted that in no way does Russia intend to deliberately lag in mitigation – but there are always external factors.

‘Hot air’ rhetoric.

If you need a sure fire way to piss off a Russian delegate, try slipping the words ‘hot air’ into a conversation. Russia has a long list of state investment programs and strategies dating back to 1995 that are intended to prove that all those supposedly ‘undeserved’ emissions units we had banked under Kyoto (and effectively lost, I might add, after declining to participate in the second commitment period) were in fact hard earned.

Given the Doha decisions, we think it’s only fair to just agree to disagree on that matter – what’s far more interesting is whether this can happen again outside Kyoto. So, when faced with a hypothetical – should Russia significantly overachieve its somewhat contentious target – Bedritsky confirmed that the Russian position would be the same – assets and not some ‘hot air’, that is.

Interestingly, the Russian head of delegation outright rejected the premise of the country’s target being too low, saying that so far there is no qualified authority to make that call (Sorry, Climate Action Tracker team.)

Green Climate Fund

We bet you didn’t know, but Russia has been sitting on some climate finance. Not being legally obliged to cough up either fast-start finance or 100 billion a year in 2020, the country took a voluntary political decision to help those who need it – notably the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), or former Soviet countries, but also small islands and African countries.

There are no numbers to crunch yet, and, according to Bedritsky, that’s because the financial mechanisms under the climate convention lack transparency and functionality needed to, firstly, find those resources in the Russian budget and, secondly, report on how those resources were used.

“We expect to see more concrete decisions on that front that would clarify how the Green Climate Fund works and what pledges are already there. So far there’s little clarity, and we are very interested in that, because once there is, you can point to concrete projects – and there we go”, says the Russian climate envoy.

(To that, we just have to say – you do know you too can work out those “modalities and procedures” in the negotiating rooms?…)

Huddles and decisions

Remember that time we promptly and unprecedentedly blocked the negotiations in Bonn? Well, questionable delivery aside, now countries agree that decision making in the UNFCCC process is something that should be discussed and dealt with if we want to avoid Copenhagen-ing all over Paris.

Russia does not a formal outcome of the consultations that started in Warsaw – rather, they think those discussions should serve as a constant reminder that “there are UN norms, you can’t work in a way when due to lack of time some decisions, which are introduced and pushed forward by some parties, are taken in an improper manner”.

Declining to prejudge any results of what basically seems to be a group therapy process, Bedritsky noted that a decision per se is not  something Russia’s fixated on.

“This process should foster trust among countries, no country or group should feel they can find themselves in a situation when decisions are taken that they disagree with and/or were not consulted about”, says the Russian climate envoy.

Rich-poor divide

It is now hard to believe that once upon a time there were days when “the Russian issue” was not about procedure. But there was, and informal consultations are ongoing on another matter very dear to our hearts – a proposal to deal with the historic firewall between developed and developing countries at its source, in the Convention.

Russia wants to amend relevant articles of the agreement to provide for periodic review of the two annexes that list, accordingly, countries who have to reduce emissions and countries who also have to come up with climate finance. Formally, the Russian proposal does not explicitly ask for the review, it only creates a mechanism for that – and that’s something Bedritsky highlighted, saying the review can happen “whenever everyone’s finally ready for it”.

For those who tacitly imply the firewall should just be abolished in the new agreement – without making developing countries really angry by doing what they feel is a renegotiation of the convention – Russia has some bad news. The seasoned delegation believes that, legally,  the climate convention being the ‘parent’ agreement for whatever deal is achieved, will take precedence over that deal and thus still impose outdated concepts Russia wants to do away with.

Civil society

We just know it that NGOs who walked out of the talks on Thursday, voting against slow progress with their feet, will be heartened to know that Russia understands their frustration.

“We saw and heard the activists leave, disappointed with the way negotiations are going, and their pace. Well, I guess yes, that’s fair. I wouldn’t make any assumptions about the scale of disappointment, because that depends on the expectations one has, but yes, overall, we sure wanted more clarity”, said Bedritsky.

Generally, the atmosphere in the Russian delegation room is pretty calm, especially if you were around to see the Doha finale in 2012. It looks like the country, indeed, did not really expect much from Warsaw, so unless something really brutal happens in the next hours, they will walk out of here tired, but not very disappointed.

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