- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently chose prudence over public relations by postponing Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto treaty on greenhouse gasses.

The announcement had been expected earlier this month, when Mr. Putin addressed the opening of the U.N. World Climate Change Conference in Moscow. Instead, Mr. Putin said that his government was still studying the “complex set of difficult problems with” the Kyoto Protocol and that any ratification decision would have to take into account Russia’s interests.

Mr. Putin’s step back was an unexpected setback for backers of the protocol. It will not take effect until the countries responsible for 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions ratify it, and nations accounting for 44 percent have already done so. Since Russia accounts for 17 percent of emissions, its ratification would put Kyoto in force.

Russia would seem to gain in the short-term by ratification. Its greenhouse gas emissions are well below the 1990 levels allowed by the protocol, and its surplus of emissions could theoretically be sold in the form of credits to countries unable to meet the treaty’s targets. On paper, those credits could be worth billions.

They could also be worthless, since an emissions credit market has not been set up. Moreover, the Kyoto Protocol lacks enforcement mechanisms, making accurate remuneration problematic at best. Besides, Russia hopes to double its gross domestic product over the next decade, which will be impossible if it has to hold itself to the protocol. Mr. Putin’s key economics advisor Andrei Illarionov argued recently, “The Kyoto Protocol will stymie economic growth. It will doom Russia to poverty, weakness and backwardness.”

Many of Mr. Putin’s critics argued that he held back to bargain for additional Western aid. But it is likely that the real reasons are that Kyoto’s economic costs will be high, its scientific foundation is still unsettled and its mitigating effects will be almost insignificant. Even if all eligible nations subjected themselves to Kyoto’s strictures, the change to global temperatures would still be almost negligible. After all, the treaty exempts developing countries like China and India. Besides, climate change models still do an incomplete job accounting for all the variables involved.

Considering the uncertainties of the science and the certain economic costs, Mr. Putin was right to delay ratification of the protocol. While greater efforts may be required in the future, a cautious approach seems wisest at the moment.

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