Kyoto Killjoy

Global warming might just be good for Russia as a northern country, President Vladimir Putin told a conference on climate change in Moscow Monday. "You'd have to spend less money on fur coats and other warm clothes," he said, adding, "Agricultural specialists say our farm production is increasing and will go on increasing. Thank God."

Mr. Putin's words simply may be dark Russian humor at play, since he also said Russia's parliament would "quickly" ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol in order to help all nations.

But when he didn't set a deadline for parliament to act, that sent a chill through delegates from Europe, Japan, and Canada, which are already making sacrifices and investments to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that most scientists say contribute to global warming.

Without Russia on board, Kyoto would be kaput. The pact can take effect only when nations that in 1990 accounted for 55 percent of emissions - mainly carbon dioxide - have ratified it. Russia accounts for 17 percent of global emissions, and so far the pact has only enough nations to represent 44 percent of emissions. (Since the US Senate and Bush administration won't back Kyoto, the 36 percent of emissions from the US won't be counted in the pact's total.)

Even if Russia joins next year, the pact's 2008-12 deadline may be in trouble. The protocol calls for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions in developed nations 5.2 percent below 1990 levels over the next nine years.

Russia's dallying reflects lingering doubts and worries in many nations about the pact's impact on economies. Another northern country, Canada, ratified the pact last year, but the real costs of reducing greenhouse emissions by 20 percent are estimated to be thousands of dollars per person over the next few years. To many, that's a high price for a treaty whose actual impact on climate change could be small.

Russia's delay could be tactical. It may first want admission to the World Trade Organization. And its ministries are still fighting over the drawbacks and benefits of Kyoto. Emissions in Russia dropped after 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its inefficient industries. Under the pact, Russia could trade those "emission credits" to polluting nations for cash. Also, Russia may gain under the pact through incentives for foreign investors to upgrade its plants.

Putin's choice can make or break Kyoto. Doing what's best for Russia will likely also be best for the world.

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