Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2003.

President Has Not Decided On Kyoto

By Greg Walters

Special to The Moscow Times

President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia has not made a decision on whether to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and that the government will not do so until it finishes studying the implications that ratification would have for the country.

Putin, speaking at the opening ceremony of the five-day UN World Climate Change Conference, left the future of the Kyoto Protocol in limbo with his remarks and disappointed some attendees, who had hoped he might use the event to announce a ratification date.

"The government is thoroughly considering and studying this issue, studying the entire complex of difficult problems linked with it," Putin said. "The decision will be made after this work has been completed. And, of course, it will take into account the national interests of the Russian Federation."

The Kyoto Protocol calls for signatory countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. Before taking effect, the treaty must be ratified by 55 or more countries and by those responsible for at least 55 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Ratification by Russia would be sufficient to bring the protocol into force. Without Russia, however, it cannot take effect.

UN officials taking the podium after Putin offered slightly barbed responses to Putin's declaration and urged the Russian government to ratify the treaty at the earliest possible date. "I must admit that I'd hoped that you would have been more specific about indicating an approximate date for Russian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol," said Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, addressing Putin.

But, she added, "I trust that under your leadership, the Russian Federation will recognize its responsibility for multilateral action on a truly global issue."

Others in attendance said they were not surprised. "We did not expect him to announce ratification," Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson said. "The government had made it abundantly clear that this was a science conference on climate change, not a political conference on Kyoto."

Just before a short intermission, Putin addressed the conference again in what appeared to be an impromptu response to those calling for quick ratification. "They often say, either as a joke or seriously, that Russia is a northern country and if temperatures get warmer by 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, it's not such a bad thing. We could spend less on warm coats, and agricultural experts say grain harvests would increase further," he said.

Even so, he continued, "we must think about the consequences of these changes that we will face in certain regions where there will be droughts and where there will be floods."

The seemingly light-hearted remarks fell flat with some attendees.

Norwegian Environment Minister Boerge Brende strongly disagreed that warmer temperatures would be good for northern countries. "Climate change is the biggest and most serious environmental threat we face," he told Reuters. "In Norway, it will lead to much more extreme weather."

Anderson, however, interpreted the remarks as a sign that Putin is serious about the Kyoto Protocol, despite lingering questions in the Russian scientific community. "He was ad-libbing there," he said. "He pointed out that there are some people [in Russia] who think that climate change is a good thing because it will reduce the amount of cold weather. He pointed out ... that there are even quite simplistic views in Russia which he has to overcome."

Furthermore, Anderson said, "I'm fully expecting [ratification] to occur within a year."

Still, Russia's stalling over the issue since last summer -- when Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced that Russia would ratify Kyoto soon -- has seemed mysterious to some experts, who point to the economic windfall the country might receive under the treaty.

According to the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, countries producing less greenhouse gases than in 1990 can sell their extra "credits" to overproducing countries, a clause that could provide Russia with an instant international commodity. Putin said Monday that Russian greenhouse emissions have decreased by 32 percent since 1990.

A few observers have said Russia's consistent refusal to provide a concrete date for ratification seems to be at odds with the government's declared position.

"Colleagues in our European offices were pretty sure that Russia would ratify, based on what they were hearing from European negotiators, who were talking to the Russia government," said Eric Sievers, an American attorney and part of Baker & McKenzie's Global Climate Change Practice Group. "The signals from the Russian government to them were that Russia was going to ratify."

Anderson said Russia might be looking to secure markets in Europe for its natural gas, which can be used to help reduce greenhouse emissions. "We think that the Russians have reason to make sure that their contributions to lowering greenhouse gases in Western Europe are properly appreciated," he said.

Sievers said the United States, which has snubbed the treaty entirely, might be pressuring Russia to hold out. "The rhetoric from Washington is constantly that this is a convention and a protocol that is fundamentally flawed," he said. "If the Kyoto Protocol comes into force, that argument loses a lot of strength. It would be a foreign policy disaster [for the Bush administration] if it did."

The White House has repeatedly denied lobbying the Kremlin to take a particular stand on the Kyoto Protocol.

David Halpern, a representative of the U.S. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy who attended the conference Monday, agreed with Putin that more research was needed. "I think Mr. Putin made a fine address, saying that more knowledge is needed to reduce uncertainty," Halpern said. "Most of the commentators [following Putin] acknowledged there is a large uncertainty, and that's one of the reasons the science continues."

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Program, disagreed. "Research, as important as it is, should not be an alibi for inaction," he said.