In a surprise move, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to endorse the ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Environmentalists worldwide hailed the move, which allows the Kyoto agreement to go into effect. In fact, the Russian decision owes less to environmental calculations than to political ones: Moscow endorsed Kyoto reportedly to win European Union endorsement for its own bid to join the World Trade Organization. Nevertheless, the move is a step forward in the battle to control greenhouse gasses that are contributing to climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in December 1997; it is the outgrowth of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under which countries agreed to try to lower their total emissions of greenhouse gases. It requires major industrialized nations by 2012 to reduce gas emissions to levels averaging 7 percent below those of 1990 (each country has set a specific target).

To take effect, the Protocol must be ratified by industrialized countries that together produced at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions in 1990. Until last week, countries accounting for 44 percent of global emissions had ratified the treaty. That list includes Japan, all the members of the European Union, and several others.

The United States, under former President Bill Clinton, signed the treaty, but his successor, Mr. George W. Bush turned his back on the Protocol, disputing the science upon which it rested and arguing that it imposed too great a burden on the U.S. and would inhibit economic growth. Moreover, he maintained similar restraints should be put on developing countries, such as China, that would become huge producers of greenhouse gasses.

With the U.S. responsible for some 36 percent of such gasses in 1990 (and about one-quarter today), The Kyoto treaty could not go into effect until it was ratified by the U.S. — or Russia, which accounted for 17.5 percent of greenhouse gasses in 1990.

Although Moscow had signed the Protocol, it refused to endorse it on the same grounds cited by Mr. Bush, claiming that it would impose too great a burden on the struggling Russian economy. Last week, however, the government reversed course. The Cabinet decided to endorse the protocol and will send it to the Russian Duma, or Parliament, for ratification. Although many anticipate a tough fight, the Duma is controlled by a progovernment majority, making ratification a virtual certainty. The treaty would then go into legal effect 90 days later.

As President Putin’s comment has indicated, the final decision was his. His top economic advisers had opposed the Protocol, and they have conceded that political motives drove the reversal. Mr. Putin’s biggest concern is winning European support for its bid to join the WTO and keeping its largest trading partner happy.

Europe has embraced Kyoto and worked to establish an internal market for emission credits — the buying and selling of greenhouse gas quotas among states. Mr. Putin’s decision to join the protocol will win it more support in European capitals, a considerable benefit given the tensions in the relationship as a result of the Chechen crisis. It will also send a message to Washington about Russia’s international priorities and its preferred diplomatic partners.

The move will also encourage the integration of Russia and Europe. Russian compliance with the Kyoto Protocol will be relatively easy. Russian quotas were set in 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian economy. The country is already under its quota, which means that it can sell its excess to other developed countries, such as those in Europe that need help.

While Russia’s decision has been applauded, the Kyoto treaty has been severely damaged by the delay. Several countries, including Japan, that were among its main backers, are finding compliance harder than ever. And since countries like the U.S. that have not ratified the Protocol are not bound by it, they receive a comparative economic advantage.

Even Kyoto’s supporters concede that the Protocol is just a first step. Developing countries like China and India will soon become substantial producers of greenhouse gasses, and must be brought into the treaty regime as well. According to one estimate, it will take more than 40 times the reductions called for in the treaty to prevent a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere this century.

With the science behind global warming and climate change becoming increasingly solid, the costs of inaction are becoming increasingly clear. Russia’s decision is overdue, yet welcome nevertheless.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.