Global warming experts in the United States are dismissing a Russian plan to allow an increase of heat-trapping emissions by 2020 as posturing before an upcoming meeting of world leaders and ongoing international climate negotiations.
Meanwhile with President Obama heading to Moscow in early July for his first U.S.-Russia summit, green groups are pushing the administration to include climate change on the agenda along with arms reduction discussions.
The Russian plan, announced late last week, would allow 30 percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the coming decade. Russian officials described that target as a 10 to 15 percent reduction from 1990 levels, though several U.S. analysts yesterday questioned that calculation.
"It would actually be a substantial increase," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It starts to sound kind of Orwellian, where up is down and down is up."
Russia's plan comes amid a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change deadline for industrialized nations to submit midterm emissions targets. The U.N. body is trying to complete a new international treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Officials hope nations will sign it at a December summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.
More immediate, though, is the Group of Eight meeting of foreign ministers this week in Trieste, Italy. World legislators, science academies and activists are pressuring countries to use the forum to develop aggressive climate change plans.
An opening card played for the Group of Eight?
Russia, several analysts said, may simply be laying a card on the table as nations head into a period of more intense negotiations.
"Hopefully this is their opening bid and not their final offer," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a little out of whack with what people expect Russia to put on the table."
So far, Russia has played an elusive role in international climate talks. Analysts said it often is unclear who is directing Russia's climate negotiators or what the country hopes to accomplish.
Add to that the fact that for many years Russian policy seemed to openly welcome a warming world. As recently as 2007, a Russian U.N. Development Programme report enumerated the many benefits the country could see from climate change.
"The rise in temperature up to to 2 or 3ºC could bring benefits through higher agricultural yields, lower winter human mortality ... lower heating requirements, and a potential boost to tourism," the report said.
But a new Moscow doctrine released earlier this year indicated a shift in attitude toward climate change.
For the first time, the government acknowledged that climate change is caused by human activity and argued it represents a threat to national security. It warned that by midcentury large portions of St. Petersburg and the Yamal peninsula could be flooded and offered other disquieting forecasts.
Schmidt and other activists praised the evolution in Russia. But they also challenged the country's leadership to prevent climate change rather than simply prepare for the impacts.
World's third largest emitter has a 'hot air' problem
Russia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. According to 2006 emissions data, the most recent available, Russia emits 2.13 billion metric tons of CO2 annually.
That is still about 27 percent below the country's quota under the Kyoto Protocol, which required it to match its average annual emissions in the measurement period compared to 1990. Hitting that target was a breeze, given the collapse of Soviet-era industry in the 1990s.
Activists like Schmidt say Russia has been given special consideration as a former Soviet country but that cannot last forever. He argued Russia should at the very least hold to its 1990 levels and ultimately go below that to be a credible player in the climate negotiations.
The country has done little so far to address climate change other than suffer a massive decline in industry following the demise of the Soviet Union. Damon Moglen, director of Greenpeace's global warming campaign, laid blame at the United States' feet.
"Who are we to be casting aspersions at the Russians when our Congress is moving in the wrong direction?" Moglen said.
He argued that the proposed federal climate and energy bill sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) does not go far enough. The bill aims to cut emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That translates into about a 4 to 7 percent cut below 1990 levels.
'It's early in the game'
"If the United States were setting an entirely different pace, other countries would be playing catchup rather than slow-down," Moglen said.
Meanwhile, international negotiators are still grappling with what to do about Russia's excessive "hot air"
Because of the collapse of much of the Soviet Union's outdated industry in the 1990s, the country's Kyoto target was far above its resulting emissions levels. Thus, Russia received a paper windfall amounting to billions of dollars worth of emission allowances. So far, Meyer said, Russia has been unable to sell the "hot air" allowances on the market because the European Union is not buying. The fate of those allowances could be a key bargaining chip in the coming months of climate talks, Russia experts said.
Meyer, Schmidt and others said they expect Obama to raise climate change when he meets next month in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.
"Obviously, arms control will be the centerpiece," Meyer said. "But I would imagine that climate and energy will be part of the conversation. I've heard it's on the list of issues."
Just how much influence that talk may have on Russia's climate position is unclear. Robert Ebel, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Energy and National Security Program, said Russia's position on global warming is wrapped up in an identity crisis.
"Russia likes to think it is the equal of developed countries. They want to be a player, but they don't want to give away too much," Ebel said. He predicted Russia's target bid will change.
"It's early in the game," he said.