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Opinion: Kyoto Clears Final Hurdle

After seven years in limbo, Russia's parliament finally ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the last obstacle before the climate treaty comes into force worldwide. It is a victory for politics, says DW's Jens Thurau.

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Russia produces 17 percent of the world's greenhouse gases

For environmentalists around the world, Friday was a day worthy of celebration: after years of waiting, Russia finally agreed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. As the 29th of 36 large industrial countries, the signing of the international climate treaty by the Russian parliament, or Duma, means the UN accord will finally go into effect worldwide.

After the United States pulled out of the treaty in 2001, all eyes turned to Moscow in the hopes that the giant polluter, which accounts for 17 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions, would sign onto the protocol and push it into action. Unlike other international accords, the 1997 protocol required more than a simple majority of signatory countries: It required ratification by countries constituting 55 percent of global emissions.

Smog in Moskau

Factories and car exhaust contribute to Moscow's high smog levels

For years the other signatory nations, particularly in Europe, waited for Russian approval to set the treaty into action. And now after ratification by the Duma and President Vladimir Putin's signature, the Kyoto Protocol sends a signal around the world that goes far beyond environmental protection: The international community has demonstrated it is capable of a multilateral approach, despite strong opposition from the United States.

A watered down version

In all honesty, little remains of the ambitious pledges to climate protection that formed the basis of the Kyoto Protocol when it was first drafted seven years ago in Japan. At that time, the industrial nations had promised to reduce by 5 percent their greenhouse gases by the year 2010. However, since then the majority of countries have instead increased their emissions, and the protocol itself has been watered down at numerous climate conferences since Kyoto -- most notoriously through the accrediting of forest space with the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Waldsterben

Countries are given "credit" for the amount of forest space they have. The idea is that forest and trees help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the environment.

In the end, even skeptics, who worried more about the economic impact of the reductions, could endorse the protocol -- much to the chagrin of environmentalists who fear the treaty as it stands now will at best lead to a stagnation of emissions. That's less than sufficient, but more than nothing.

Setting cooperation in motion

For now, what's important is that the pact sets new forms of international cooperation in motion. Wealthy nations, for instance, can finance projects to develop alternative energy sources in poorer countries and thus gain credit to be used against their own emission reduction requirements. In the European Union, trade with emission rights, so-called carbon credits, will go into effect shortly, whereby countries can trade among each other for the right to pollute.

Moreover, the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol also paves the way for the most important climate negotiations in the coming years, when threshold nations such as China and India -- who at the moment are not held accountable for their own emissions -- will be required to contribute to the worldwide reduction of greenhouse gases.

Solarenergie in Marokko

Solar-powered electricity system set up in a village in Morocco in conjunction with TotalFinaElf company

International contracts, once implemented, often develop their own dynamic. That has been the case in the past, and with the Kyoto Protocol, environmentalists hope it will help direct the focus away from fossil fuels and towards developing alternative energy sources.

An accomplishment for politics

Measured against the expectations of climate researchers and environmentalists, Friday's ratification and the now-certain implementation of the Kyoto Protocol may fall short of what they originally hoped to accomplish. But measured against the expectations and realities of politics, the accomplishment is considerably higher than what might have occurred.

It will now be difficult for the United States government to continue giving the international climate protection treaty the cold shoulder -- not matter who the future American president is.

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