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Russia Delays Ratification of Kyoto Protocol

Russia has dashed hopes that the Kyoto Protocol on lowering greenhouse gas emissions will take effect soon, saying it agrees in principle to the treaty, but wants more time to study the plan.

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A global commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions goes up in smoke unless Russia ratifies it.

Scientists and environmental ministers from around the world turned to Moscow on Monday awaiting a decision that would seal the fate of the emissions-reducing Kyoto Protocol. Whether or not the 1997 drafted pact on combating global warming goes into effect rests in the hands of Russia. But the country is wavering on ratification and has refused to give a definite answer, arguing it needs more time to study the treaty.

On Thursday, Russia, which became the environmental kingmaker after the United States pulled out of the pact in 2001, delayed a decision on ratifying the protocol, saying it needed time to weigh the consequences before it could be persuaded to sign on the dotted line.

"There is no strict timetable at the moment," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Gordeyev told reporters on Thursday. "The government in any country... has an obligation to decide what steps it needs to take after signing (the protocol). Gordeyev further cited scientific reasons for Russia’s wavering stance. "The Russian government looks on the Kyoto Protocol positively, but we say that the protocol, especially concerning scientific matters, leaves a lot of questions unanswered," he said.

On Monday, at the opening of a five-day World Climate Change Conference in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially postponed a decision on the Protocol, saying, "The government is closely studying and examining this question."

"This is part of a complex of difficult and unclear problems. A decision will be taken when this work is finished," Putin announced without giving any indication of when that could be.

For environmentalists, the Russian delay is yet another setback on the road to securing a global commitment to rein in emissions of gases like carbon dioxide from factories and cars, blamed for raising temperatures and creating climatic havoc.

Russia left with casting vote on Kyoto

Agreed to in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997, the treaty sets individual targets for industrialized countries to lower their emissions of carbon gases, the byproduct of burning fossil fuels, on average by 5.2 percent below their 1990 levels over the next 10 years.

Despite the fact that more than 100 mostly developing nations have already ratified the treaty, the environmental pact suffered a serious setback when the United States, which alone accounts for around 35 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions, pulled out of the treaty in 2001. The U.S. argued the treaty would hurt its economy and rejected the scientific claims of global warming. Other industrial nations, like Australia, followed the Bush administration's stance.

Under the treaty’s complex weighting system, countries responsible for producing 55 percent of greenhouse gases, have to approve it before it comes into force. With the U.S., arguably the world’s largest polluter, out of the fray, the onus is now on Russia to ratify Kyoto and ensure it takes effect.

Galvanizing global action

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a message to the conference on Monday, urged Russia to approve Kyoto, calling the pact a "vital first step in tackling global challenges of global warning."

Although he stopped short of outwardly criticizing Putin, the intent of Annan’s words were obvious: "I join people throughout the world in eagerly awaiting ratification by the Russian Federation, which will bring the protocol into force and further galvanize global action."

Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which oversees the Kyoto Protocol, was much more direct in her criticism of Putin. "I had hoped you would have been more specific in indicating a date for ratification," she said at the start of the Moscow climate conference.

Greenpeace echoed her criticism and blasted the leader for taking so long to make a decision. "President Putin has had more than three years to analyze how Kyoto could be implemented in Russia, and his stalling could now derail the entire process," a spokesperson said.

Moscow wary of investment promises

Apart from scientific uncertainties, Russia is hesitant to sign because of a clause in the treaty allowing for the creation of a "carbon market," potentially worth billions of dollars a year, where industrialized signatory countries can buy and sell emissions "credits" in order to meet their treaty obligations.

The collapse of the Soviet Union cut Russia's emissions levels down from the 17 percent figure it had when the quotas were set in 1990. As a result, the country has a lot of emission "credits" to sell over-polluters.

But President Vladimir Putin's administration is not sure they'll be any buyers.

"We must receive guarantees, where the money will be put every year. If we ratify, it could all go to Ukraine. We must have firm guarantees about the amount," Gordeyev stressed on Thursday.

The EU, which set the ball rolling on the world’s first international emissions trading market earlier this year, has tried to reassure Russia investment will flow in. The UNFCC has also chimed in with words of encouragement for the Putin government.

"There is huge scope for the Russian economy to modernize in such a way that is both economically attractive and at the same time, climate-friendly," the executive secretary of the U.N. agency, Joke-Waller Hunter, told Deutsche Welle ahead of Putin’s announcement on Monday.

But despite such urging, Putin refuses to get down from the fence and make a decision on ratification. Replying to critics on Monday, Putin said sarcastically, "People say we are a northern country and a temperature two to three degrees warmer would not be scary, maybe it would be good... We would have to spend less money on fur coats and other warm clothes."

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