Published online 30 September 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040927-15


Russia backs Kyoto treaty

Participation would bring climate cuts into force.

Russian ratification of the Kyoto treaty would bolster greenhouse gas cuts.Russian ratification of the Kyoto treaty would bolster greenhouse gas cuts.© Getty

Russian president Vladimir Putin has announced that he wants the country to sign up to the Kyoto agreement to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. If the Russian parliament approves the move, it will make the treaty legally binding.

Since the United States backed out of the environmental treaty, Russian participation has been the only way that it can come into force. In order to become legally binding, the pact has to be ratified by a set of countries that together were responsible for at least 55% of the world's 1990 carbon emissions.

Russia accounted for 17% of global emissions in 1990. Combined with the 44.2% of 1990 emissions that are accounted for by industrialized nations who have already ratified the treaty, this would fulfil the requirements for the agreement to come into force. All participating industrialized countries would then be legally obliged to meet their pledge to reduce greenhouse gas by at least 5% relative to 1990 levels by 2012.

Putin has passed the treaty to the Russian parliament, Duma, for its approval. "I am delighted by President Putin's decision," says Margaret Beckett, Britain's secretary of state for the environment. "Russian ratification is a vital step forwards for global efforts to tackle climate change."

Exciting phase

"Russian ratification would ensure that the protocol enters into force and would launch an exciting new phase in the global campaign to reduce the risks of climate change," says Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "After a short celebration, we must all get down to the serious business of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases."

If the Kyoto agreement comes into force, it may spur some countries in their efforts to cut emissions, says David Reay, a climate change expert at the University of Edinburgh, UK. "Most countries were failing their targets with no punishment," he says. "This will really focus minds in the corridors of power."

In future, more drastic pollution cuts are needed to curb climate change.In future, more drastic pollution cuts are needed to curb climate change.© Punchstock

Russia's decision will be a symbolic first step towards tackling global warming, Reay says. But he adds that future cuts need to be far more stringent than those demanded by Kyoto; climate researchers agree that to make a real difference to climate change, greenhouse-gas levels need to be cut by 60%.

Penalties for failing to cut emissions or missing particular targets also need to be beefed up, Reay argues. Under the terms of the current agreement, developing countries will not be penalized at all, and industrialized nations must simply make up any target shortfall during the second phase of the treaty, in 2012-16, plus a 30% penalty.

Strong message

Nonetheless, Russia's decision sends a powerful message to the United States and Australia, the two most significant Kyoto dissenters. The move comes despite strong opposition from Putin's chief economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, who has claimed that the Kyoto protocol will stifle economic growth.

Economists believe that Putin's decision was motivated by his desire for Russia to join the World Trade Organization. The move may mean that Russia's application will be viewed more favourably by the European Union.

But whatever the reason, the decision is good news, says Reay. "We need action, and we need Kyoto to have real power," he says "The United States and Australia will really be out in the cold now."