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Russia: Natural Gas Riches May Aid Global Environment

Washington, 28 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. environmental scholar says that although Russia is the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, it could help to reduce the phenomena of global warming if it were to effectively exploit its natural gas capability.

William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, made the comment Tuesday at a press conference in Washington held to discuss an upcoming international summit on global warming.

The summit is scheduled to be held in Kyoto, Japan, in December and organizers hope an international treaty on global warming will be signed. More than 150 governments are expected to attend the meeting and negotiate a wide array of measures to address the problem.

Some nations from the former USSR and Eastern Europe expected to attend include Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Turkemnistan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

The term "global warming" refers to a long-term rise in the average temperature of the Earth. Scientists say that the global average surface temperature has increased slightly over half a degree centigrade during the past century. Analyses indicate that this is an unusually large, rapid and prolonged trend, and suggest that the warming is due to human influences and the release of toxic substances into the air.

Statistics provided by the U.S. State Department say the United States is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, one of the most common environmental toxins and one considered by many scientists to be largely responsible for the global warming phenomena. The State Department says the United States releases more than double the amount emitted by Russia, and more than quadruples the amount Ukraine -- seventh on the list of the world's biggest emitters -- releases.

The State Department says China is rated a distant second among nations contributing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Moomaw says Russia peaked in 1991 as far as carbon dioxide emissions are concerned and then experienced a sharp decline which continues today. He says the reason for the dramatic decline in carbon dioxide emissions in Russia is due mostly to the restructuring of the economy and the decrease in the need to meet certain industrial production goals that had been set by the communist government.

Moomaw says that because Russia is so rich in natural gas resources, it has the potential to become one of the lowest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world if only it would develop the needed technology to utilize the gas effectively.

"Unfortunately, I don't see that happening any time soon," says Moomaw. "Russia simply has too many other issues of more importance in front of them now."

The issue of a treaty on global warming is also being hotly debated in the United States -- by environmental activists and scientists on one side and industrial leaders and workers on the other.

Scientists warn that if an international treaty on global warming is not reached this December that the Earth will experience severe climate catastrophes that would affect every corner of the world.

American industrial leaders, however, strongly protest the idea of an international treaty on global warming, saying that restrictions on emissions from industrial nations would result in a massive loss of jobs and would unfairly punish those most economically capable.

The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton has yet to present a comprehensive policy on the issue. Officials have tentatively proposed the idea of voluntary regulations on industry, for example by asking car manufacturers to create more fuel-efficient automobiles within the next few years. Those companies that comply with the voluntary regulations will be rewarded, but there are no legal consequences for those who do not.

Moomaw says that kind of soft approach will not work. "Voluntary programs are good and fine, but they are only going to take us a certain distance here," he says.

Moomaw adds that the United States needs to lead the way at the summit by presenting a viable policy that outlines realistic guidelines for reducing the effect of global warming, and includes serious ramifications for those industries that do not comply.