George W. Bush did not instantly kill the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change just by pulling America out of the treaty in March 2001, but it did mean that every other major industrial country had to ratify it before it could take effect. He then proceeded to turn the screws on those who might be induced to defect, and early this month in Moscow, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, started to crack. If Russia pulls out, the treaty dies.
Addressing an international conference on the science of climate change in Moscow on September 29, Putin openly said for the first time that Russia might never ratify the treaty. He is considering where Russiaís interests lie, and there is not even a timetable any more. Since neither the science nor the economics have changed since Putin declared two years ago that Moscow would ratify the treaty, there are grounds for suspecting that his motive for postponing a decision is mainly political.
There can be no treaty without Russia, because it does not come into effect until 55 countries ratify it. Over a hundred countries have ratified it already, but since the United States of America alone accounts for a quarter of the whole worldís carbon dioxide emissions, Russia must ratify to clear the 55 per cent threshold. So why is Moscow moving away from a decision'
Not that bad
Putinís public explanation was the need for further study. ď(Critics of Kyoto) often say...that Russia is a northern country, and if temperatures get warmer by two or three degrees Celsius itís not that badĒ, he told the conference. But surely he did not really mean that itís fine for other countries to turn into deserts or be drowned by rising sea levels so long as itís good for Russia ó and besides, it is far from clear that global warming would benefit Russia.
So why has the Russian government given credibility to pro-global warming scientists like Alexander Bedritski and Yuri Israel, the Russian organizers of the current conference, by having Putin address it personally' Especially when Russia could earn a lot of money by selling its surplus carbon emission rights to other industrialized countries that are having trouble meeting their target of a five per cent reduction in their 1990 level of emissions by 2010' The answer, almost certainly, is international politics.
Like most European leaders, Putin is appalled by the Bush administrationís foreign policy, but he is trying hard to retain good relations with the US. Having openly opposed Washington on the invasion of Iraq and the Russian sale of nuclear power-plants to Iran, he doesnít want to incur its wrath on Kyoto as well.
On the other hand, as a major trading partner and perhaps one day a candidate member of the European Union, Russia does not want to annoy EU leaders who back the Kyoto accord. Then thereís the need not to alienate any Russian voters before the parliamentary elections in December.
So Putinís best strategy on all counts is to delay. If Bush goes down in defeat in November 2004, Russia will promptly ratify Kyoto. If the Bush administration and all its policies survive, Putin will then have a momentous decision to make about whether Europe or America is the more important partner for Russia.
Why is the Kyoto deal worth saving, given that the reduction in carbon emissions needed to stop the warming process is more like 60 per cent than the five per cent mandated by the treaty' Because this is the first time in international law that countries have accepted legally binding obligations to shape their entire economy in ways that do not harm the global environment.
It took tens of thousands of people more than a decade to negotiate the Kyoto accord, and it is the template for all the far more rigorous treaties that will have to be made in future as global warming bites deeper and the political will for deeper emission cuts emerges. Lose this one, and we start from scratch again ó but we may not have an extra decade to spare.