At times last week it looked as if the Russians were playing roulette with the world's climate. On the first spin of the wheel the future looked bleak: a senior official said that his country would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming. But the next day, it spun again: the deputy economics minister said that Russia was "moving towards ratification" after all.
What are the world's environment ministers, meeting this week in Milan to discuss the protocol, to think? The disagreement in the Russian government is worrying. For under its own rules, the treaty cannot come into force until Russia joins. Up to now Russia has had an incentive to ratify: it would stand to make huge gains of some $10bn (£6bn) from the sale of "hot air". It would sell part of its allowance for emissions of carbon dioxide (the main cause of global warming) to countries that exceed their levels.
President Putin, however, is coy, either because he is waiting to get the best deal or becausegrowth of 7-10 per cent a year since 1999 has increased Russian CO2 emissions, rapidly draining the reservoir of "hot air". One estimate is that by 2008 Russian emissions could be 6 per cent higher than in 1990, so it might instead face restrictions. The US and Australia, accounting for nearly one-third of industrialised countries' greenhouse gas emissions, seem likely to remain outside the protocol as long as the Bush Administration lasts.
As a result, US emissions - instead of being reduced by 7 per cent as agreed at Kyoto - are likely to grow 30 per cent by 2010. Developing nations have made it clear they will not take on the targets until the industrialised countries, who initially caused the problem, take effective action. That is serious because developing countries' emissions are growing four times as fast as those of the OECD, and will overtake them within 5-7 years. If nothing is done, world CO2 emissions, instead of being cut by 60 per cent by 2050 - as the scientists say is necessary - will instead increase by 75 per cent by 2020.
How can this logjam be broken? One idea is for the EU, hopefully led by the UK, to partner developing countries to take significant measures without the targets. To a degree this is already happening. China, which accounts for 14 per cent of world CO2 emissions, recently tripled them, mainly through a huge growth in coal-fired power. It then heavily cut coal and petroleum subsidies, reducing them by 70 per cent of what it would have been.
By the mid-1990s, 12 per cent of China's electricity generation capacity was provided by energy-saving combined heat and power, compared to less than 1 per cent in the UK. Similarly, India has more windpower (6,000 megawatts) than the US. A second proposal has been mooted by the Red Cross - that poor countries might seek legal redress from countries causing global warming. Recent Australian-Canadian research has identified the cause of the Sahel and Ethiopian droughts of the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s - when a million people died - as pollution and power generation in industrialised countries, disrupting weather patterns across Africa. However desirable these proposals, they do not offer a watertight framework to deliver what the scientists demand. Can Kyoto deliver them? Unlikely, when the US and Australia remain outside and when developing countries show few signs of signing up to targets which could limit their economic prospects. How then can we secure a global cap on emissions while allowing reasonable growth in developing countries?
The best proposal so far is the "Contraction and Convergence" from the Global Commons Institute and Globe Parliamentarians.
This notes, for example, that Chinese emissions per head are still only one-eighth - and Indian about one-twenty-fifth - of the average American. China and India will only commit when they have a fair share of a limited global facility - generating greenhouse gases without putting the world's climate at risk. Nor is this merely the dream of radical idealists. Adair Turner, a former President of the CBI, said in 2001 that "the only equitable and politically feasible long-term vision would give each country a roughly equal right to emissions per capita". There is consensus that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted should not exceed 450-500 parts per million (compared to 375 now). That would require steadily reducing annual CO2 emissions to about 2.3bn tons of carbon by 2100, compared to 7.5bn tons now. Convergence to equal entitlements should be completed within a given timescale, perhaps 2030.
Once in place, trading of the entitlements could safely occur as the most efficient means to achieve it. Will it happen? Not if the US can stop it, but if the EU and developing nations forged a voluntary partnership - a "coalition of the virtuous" - they could create a viable strategy to confront global warming. As someone once said, there is really no alternative.
Michael Meacher was Minister for the Environment 1997-2003