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Russia's Putin Caught Between Coal And Kyoto

by Sergei Blagov

on recent events

on Kyoto Protocol

(IPS) MOSCOW -- Russia's move towards greater use of coal may help the economy but will damage the environment, experts say.

President Vladimir Putin has called for greater exploitation of Russia's coal reserves. But this policy could clash with Moscow's commitments to reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, environmentalists say.

"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 told IPS. "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 Russia'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 a profit in line with their policy of full employment. But government subsidies were slashed after 1993 and the coal sector could not compete with gas prices, kept artificially low to contain inflation. Electricity from coal is now twice as costly as power generation from gas.

The World Bank helped close loss-making coal mines and privatize others. In 1998 alone some 420,000 miners were laid off. The World Bank has given Russia $1.3 billion in loans to close mines and to pay for re-training 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 generation.

UES managers say it would cost a billion dollars to refit 30 power stations for use of coal. That would include the cost of environmental protection. But not many companies that use coal would have a budget for such safeguards. Greater use of coal without such protection threatens to increase emission of carbon dioxide which is blamed for global warming.

Putin has said Russia is "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 the Kyoto Protocol industrialized countries commit themselves to reducing emission of greenhouse gases in an effort to combat global warming.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told the World Summit on Sustainable Development last month that "ratification will take place in the very near future." Kasyanov said 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 per cent. The U.S. walked away from the Kyoto Protocol in March this year. But Russia's share is 17 percent and ratification by Russia along with the others could make the protocol 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 Johannesburg summit was given virtually no coverage in the Russian media and the recent drive towards increased use of coal indicate that Russia is not moving towards the Kyoto Protocol, says Vladimir Zakharov, head of the Moscow-based Center of Ecological Policies.

Other activists are more optimistic. "I hope that Russia will ratify the Kyoto Protocol soon," says Igor Chestin, director of WWF Russia. Environmentalists are waiting to see how the Russian government can join the Kyoto Protocol while at the same time stepping up coal consumption.

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Albion Monitor October 4 2002 (

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