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Russia Takes Step Toward Approval of Kyoto Protocol

Times Staff Writer

The Russian Cabinet gave its approval to the Kyoto Protocol on Thursday in the strongest sign yet that the treaty to fight global warming would win enough worldwide support to come into force.

The Duma, the lower house of parliament, has yet to give its backing and President Vladimir V. Putin his signature before Russia can ratify the treaty, but those actions are widely expected.

It is now “99% certain” that the Kyoto Protocol will come into effect, said Alexei O. Kokorin, coordinator of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s climate change program in Russia. “Global society at last made a practical step to mitigate global warming,” he said.

The treaty was designed to slow global warming by reducing air pollution, particularly the release of carbon dioxide, which many scientists believe creates a “greenhouse” effect. Nations that sign on are required to reduce their emissions of six key gases to 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012.

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The fate of the 1997 accord hangs on Moscow’s decision. Although more than 120 countries have ratified the pact, Russia’s support is needed to reach a key standard for it to take effect: approval by countries that accounted for at least 55% of global emissions in 1990.

The pact’s requirements would not apply to the United States. The Bush administration pulled out of the agreement in 2001, citing potential harm to the American economy if companies were compelled to cut such emissions. However, the treaty could increase pressure on the U.S. to do more to control emissions.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday that the administration had not changed its view on the treaty. But he noted that “it’s up to other nations to independently evaluate whether ratification is in their national interests.”

Boucher added that the U.S. was committed to taking action on climate change, through efforts aimed at reducing greenhouse gases by pursuing cleaner energy technologies and research on the problem.

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Even supporters say the Kyoto Protocol is only a first step toward addressing the threat of global warming, with much greater efforts needed in future decades.

The U.S. was responsible for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990; its withdrawal meant that ratification by nearly all other industrial countries was required to put the treaty into effect. Japan and members of the European Union have all given their backing. Russia’s share of 1990 global emissions was 17%.

One of the major attractions of the treaty for Russia is a provision under which countries that have lowered their greenhouse gas emissions beyond the requirements can sell pollution credits to other nations that can’t meet their treaty limits.

By some estimates, Russia -- where emissions have fallen by one-third since 1990 as production by heavy industries has slipped -- could gain more than $1 billion a year between 2008 and 2012 by selling credits.

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Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, a former environment minister now at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said his nation could benefit from the pact in other ways. Russia has already used the treaty as a bargaining chip to win trade concessions from the European Union, and it could gain recognition for helping to slow global warming.

Despite Thursday’s decision, Moscow has given mixed signals in the past over its willingness to back the treaty, prompting some observers to voice reservations about concluding that the issue is settled.

Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said it was not yet certain that the Russians would take all the steps needed for ratification. “The government has decided to submit it to the Duma, and it’s not clear when the Duma would complete its role in the ratification process,” he said.

Sergei Vasilyev, head of the National Carbon Union, a partnership of leading Russian businesses that advocates ratification, said “it does not seem possible that the government will backtrack on its words.” But he added that parliament could drag its feet on ratification in order to extract concessions from treaty partners on details of implementation that still need to be worked out.

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“It would mean that until the Europeans give valid and reliable guarantees to Russia, they will not have their Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

Numerous Russian officials and academics continue to oppose the treaty, arguing that it will force costly upgrades in industry and that the science the pact is based on is unproven.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov, speaking Thursday to reporters during a visit to the Netherlands, said he expected heated parliamentary discussion on the issue. “The debate is opened, and I think it will not be easy,” he said.

Nonetheless, U.S. environmentalists praised Russia for acting on the accord -- and voiced scorn for the stance taken by their own government.

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“Sadly, this leaves the U.S. isolated in its refusal to join the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas pollution,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense.

Although congressional advocates of action to address global warming have said it is unrealistic to expect U.S. approval of the Kyoto accord, two senators said Thursday that the United States must address its emission problems. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) propose a modified system of caps to enforce improved U.S. standards. A version of their bill was opposed by President Bush and failed in a Senate vote last year.

“As a world leader, the United States cannot afford to stand on the sidelines as the global campaign to curb global warming gains steam and more and more of our competitors gain the advantage in adapting to this environmental and economic reality,” Lieberman said.

Times staff writers Paul Richter and Elizabeth Shogren in Washington and special correspondent Alexei V. Kuznetsov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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