Russia has moved a step closer to ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. sponsored climate change agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
On Thursday, the Russian cabinet agreed to forward the treaty to the Russian Parliament for ratification. Russian approval of the Kyoto Protocol would clear the way despite continued U.S. opposition for the climate treaty to go into force worldwide.
Ever since the United States pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, the fate of the agreement has been in doubt.
Industrialized countries, responsible for 55 percent of the world's climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions had to ratify the treaty before it could go into effect. The United States, whose factories and automobiles account for one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, is the world's largest polluter.
When the U.S. rejected Kyoto, the global community turned to Russia, the 3rd largest polluter, to sign. Russia initially said compliance would cost too much and harm its economy.
Jonathan Pershing is the director of the Climate, Energy and Pollution Program with the World Resources Institute, an independent think-tank on environment and development issues.
He says the collapse of the Russian economy after the breakup of the Soviet Union, ironically, put Russia in a better position to comply with Kyoto.
"It is very good for the global environment because the fewer emissions you have the more significant the benefits [that] the environment sees," he says. "But the second thing is that it has always been assumed that Russia would need to continue to grow and to catch up a bit with its emissions, but this time with more efficient technologies. A lot of the technologies particularly in the energy sector, were very inefficient. And so as [the country grows] economically and [it builds] these new technologies, [it] can in fact grow economically without growing their emissions."
Industrial greenhouse-gas emissions in Russia are down 25 percent from 1990 levels, the baseline year used to calculate the reductions called for by Kyoto. Under the agreement, Russia can sell its surplus in an emissions trading market established by the treaty.
"Numbers range, but people think that Russia may have as many as 300 million tons [per year] to sell. And Russia may have a price that may be close to $5-$10 a ton, which at $3 a ton is $1 billion," he adds. "At $10 a ton it is $3 billion, which is a significant sum of money that can then go into upgrades and certain kinds of infrastructure."
Jonathan Pershing says Russia will enjoy other benefits, too, including membership in the World Trade Organization and increased demand for its massive natural gas resources.
"It turns out that gas has much less CO2 emissions per unit of energy compared with other fossil fuels, and so if you are trying to reduce emissions switching from coal or oil to gas is a bit advantageous," says Mr. Pershing. "Now Russia is a big gas exporter and the more countries move to ratify and comply with Kyoto, the more they are likely to try to move to gas the more value Russia's gas exports have."
Beyond Kyoto, Jonathan Pershing expects American corporations to pressure the U.S. government to take part in future climate agreements, especially if international business declines. But, he says, he doesn't expect Kyoto to completely shut out the United States.
"One of the things the treaty should generate is a much increasing interest in the development of non-carbon energy sources," he adds. "U.S. companies have got some of that technology and can sell that on the international market and those companies will still get some of the advantage, not as much, because my sense is that there will be a preference to support European companies, where they have that commitment, but still American companies ought to be able to compete even if at a somewhat reduced level."
Annie Petsonk is senior counsel for Environmental Defense, a private advocacy group. She is optimistic that Russia will join the other 125 ratifying nations, but says U.S. isolation creates political and economic problems.
"The U.S. rejection of Kyoto increases the tension between the United States and American's friends and allies who have decided that global warming is a serious problem," she notes. "America's go-it-alone approach also means that U.S. companies will not be able to participate in the Kyoto emissions trading market by selling pollution reductions. This will be the first major international marketplace that the U.S. has voluntarily removed itself from."
Analysts do not expect much opposition to the Kyoto Protocol in Russia's Parliament and they say Russia may make a formal announcement to ratify the treaty at the annual round of climate change negotiations in Buenos Aires in early December. The Kyoto Protocol would go into effect 90 days later.