Divisions over emissions

SINCE IT was negotiated in Japan in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, the first treaty that would require countries to curb emissions linked to global warming, has lingered in an indeterminate state, between enactment and outright rejection.

On Tuesday, its prospects were dealt what may have been a fatal blow when a top Russian official said that his country would not ratify it. But experts on climate and diplomacy say that whether the treaty is ever enacted matters less every day.

Even without approval by the United States and Russia — first and fourth on lists of the world's largest emitters of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases — the treaty has already changed the world in small but significant ways that will be hard to reverse, these experts say. And because its terms extend only to 2012 in any case, they add, new approaches must be developed now if atmospheric levels of the gases are ever to stabilise.

The Protocol has been approved by 120 countries but was rejected by the U.S. President, George W. Bush, in 2001. Without the United States, the only way to reach a threshold for enactment under the treaty's complicated terms was with Russian participation.

If enacted, it would give industrialised countries until 2012 to reduce their combined emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases more than 5 per cent below 1990 levels.

The possibility remains that Tuesday's statement by the Russian official, Andrei Illarionov, the top economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin, was just a negotiating ploy, aimed at extracting as many concessions as possible from the European Union and Japan, the treaty's main boosters.

On Wednesday, a lower-level official, Mukhamed Tsikanov, a Deputy Economics Minister, sounded a note of hope for the treaty, declaring, ``There are no decisions about ratification apart from the fact that we are moving towards ratification.'' Mr. Putin, meanwhile, remained silent.

But regardless of which way Russia steps, the process of moving the world toward limiting releases of the gases after more than a century of relentless increases has clearly begun, said David B. Sandalow, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration who worked on the treaty.

"The standard of success isn't whether the first treaty out of the box sails through," he said. "The standard is whether this puts the world on a path to solving a long-term problem. Other multilateral regimes dealing with huge complex problems, like the World Trade Organisation, have taken 45 or 50 years to get established."

Mr. Sandalow and other experts noted that the European Union had already passed a law requiring a cap and credit-trading system for the heat-trapping gases starting in 2005 that will follow the pattern laid out by the Kyoto Protocol no matter what happens with the treaty.

Spurred by the prospect of international curbs on emissions, many companies with long-term business plans have started changing practices and adjusting investments to focus on improving energy efficiency. (Carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas, comes largely from burning coal and oil.)

Even in the United States, where Mr. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress strongly oppose the treaty, legislation that would require milder restrictions on emissions than those in the Kyoto treaty has gained some momentum, with a recent vote on one such bill getting 43 senators' votes.

Opponents of the treaty acknowledge that it has already made a difference, though they say it is a harmful one. "Kyoto is dead and has been dead, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't done some real damage and won't continue to do some real damage," said Myron Ebell, a climate policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-backed group that opposes regulatory solutions to environmental problems.

"If global warming turns out to be a problem, which I doubt, it won't be solved by making ourselves poorer through energy rationing," he said. "It will be solved through building resiliency and capability into society and through long-term technological innovation and transformation."

Critics of this view say the one feature of the Kyoto treaty that cannot be jettisoned is a ceiling on emissions. Without limits, they said, there will be no incentive for industry to innovate and find the cheapest, most effective ways to limit human impact on the atmosphere, said David D. Doniger, the climate-policy director of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a private environmental group.

"If the United States had invented the catalytic converter but not passed clean-air laws," he said, "it would still be sitting on a shelf and we'd still be choking in smog." — New York Times News Service.

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