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Into Thin Air:
Kyoto Accord May Not Die (or Matter)

ANDREW C. REVKIN / NY Times 4dec03

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 his country would not ratify it. But some experts on climate and diplomacy say that the fate of the Kyoto treaty itself is rapidly becoming less important than the longer-term processes it set in motion.

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.

From Europe to Japan and the United States, just the prospect of the treaty has resulted in legislation and new government and industry policies curbing emissions.

The treaty's future impact is limited by deep flaws, many experts say, including its lack of any emissions limits on China and other big developing countries and its short time frame, with terms extending only to 2012. As a result, they add, new approaches must be developed now if atmospheric levels of the gases are to be stabilized.

The protocol has been approved by 120 countries but was rejected by President Bush in 2001. Without the United States, the only way to reach the threshold for enactment under the treaty's terms was with Russian participation. If enacted, it would give industrialized countries until 2012 to reduce their combined emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases more than 5 percent below 1990 levels.

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

On Wednesday a lower-level official, Mukhamed M. 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 toward ratification." Mr. Putin, meanwhile, remained silent.

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 Organization, 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 gases starting in 2005. It will follow the pattern laid out in Kyoto no matter what happens to the treaty.

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.

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

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