Russia finally backs Kyoto. Does it matter?

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The Independent Online

It's not enough, but it's a start. Politicians and environmentalists around the world cheered yesterday when after a long period of vacillation, Russia finally moved to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty on countering climate change.

The decision by President Vladimir Putin's cabinet to approve ratification means that the landmark UN agreement, which aims at cutting the greenhouse gases causing global warming, and which was gravely weakened by George Bush's decision to withdrawn the US from it in 2001, is at last likely to enter into legal force some time next year.

It has been an agonising wait for anyone concerned with the climate change threat. The withdrawal of the US, the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter, meant that, under the treaty's terms, ratification by Russia, the next biggest, was essential for it not to fall by the wayside.

For more than a year the Russians have hesitated, weighing up the political and economic pros and cons of ratification, with their every pronouncement on Kyoto examined by environmentalists with the same sort of minute scrutiny Kremlinologists used to apply to political reports inPravda in the days of the Soviet Union.

The vociferous opposition to the treaty, of President Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who thinks it will constrain Russia's economic development, has been contrasted against other more favourable opinions.

Yesterday, however, the Russians finally came off the fence when the Putin cabinet agreed on ratification, and sent their decision to the Duma, the Russian parliament, to be confirmed. As the Duma is largely controlled by Mr Putin's United Russia party, it is thought very likely that this will happen, and that the Russians will ratify some time early in the New Year.

This will pass the threshold for the treaty to enter into force - it needs to be ratified by 55 countries, representing at least 55 per cent of the industrialised world's emissions of greenhouse gases in 1990, to do so - and 90 days later Kyoto will become a legal reality.

Good news for the world? Certainly. Yet it is increasingly recognised that the cuts Kyoto prescribes in greenhouse gases - principally CO2 - difficult though they may have been to agree in the first place, will themselves merely scratch the surface of the climate change problem, and will only have the tiniest effect in the anticipated catastrophic world temperature rise in the coming century.

Tony Blair has recently led the way in calling for massive cuts in CO2 emission of 60 per cent by 2050, and has promised to make new climate change initiatives the policy centrepiece of Britain's chairmanship next year of the G8.

However, had Kyoto failed, the whole international consensus on acting to tackle climate change would have fallen apart with it, and yesterday real delight was expressed around the world that the treaty was back on track.

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, hailed the Russian announcement and said she hoped to see an early decision by the Duma. "Russian ratification is a vital step forwards for global efforts to tackle climate change. I am delighted by President Putin's decision to send the protocol to the Duma for ratification, and we look forward to a swift decision. It is the right thing for Russia, for Europe, and for the global community, and it is a timely boost for Britain's plans for international dialogue on climate change in 2005."

Greenpeace welcomed the Russian move which, it said, would leave US President Bush facing international isolation over his opposition to the protocol.

"As the Earth is battered by increasing storms, floods and droughts, President Putin has brought us to a pivotal point in human history today," said international climate campaigner, Steve Sawyer. "The Bush administration is out in the cold and the rest of the world's governments can move forward as one to start tackling climate change, the greatest threat to civilisation the world has ever seen."

The Russian decision does indeed leave the US, the world's biggest polluter, looking isolated on the international stage as an environmental sinner.

Major developing nations such as China and India, which are themselves major emitters of CO2, have not yet been brought into the cuts process.

However, Mr Blair has recognised that this is an essential next step if the process is to move forward, and has pledged to begin talks with the Chinese and Indians.

The Russian cabinet's decision to approve Kyoto ratification followed a long tussle at the highest levels of the Russian government, in which international political considerations finally prevailed over practical misgivings.

The Kremlin realised that it could extract a valuable prize in exchange for ratification; EU approval for Russia's entry into the WTO and the promise of a visa-free regime with the 25 nation bloc.

After the appalling way in which the Beslan school siege was handled and vocal western criticism of moves to scrap democratic elections for regional governors in favour of Kremlin appointees, Russia also realised that it needed all the good publicity it could get.


What is the Kyoto protocol?

It is a treaty agreed by governments at a 1997 UN conference in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce emissions of the so- called greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from cars and power stations.

What are the reductions and who has to make them?

In the treaty's first period, to 2012, only the 39 major industrialised countries (including Britain) are required to make cuts. The developed nations as a whole have to cut their emissions to 5.2 per cent of their 1990 levels during the five-year period 2008-2012. The EU as a whole has to cut its emissions to 8 per cent cent below; Britain to 12.5 per cent; and the US to 7 per cent below (a target abandoned with US withdrawal from the protocol).

How are countries doing so far?

Most countries are lagging behind their targets under Kyoto. The European Commission said in December, for instance, that 13 of the then 15 members of the European Union were likely to overshoot the target. Only Britain and Sweden were on track.