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Russia: Putin Remarks Start Off International Climate Conference On Sour Note

This week's international conference on climate change opened in Moscow today with an air of expectancy. The fate of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming depends largely on Russia, which has yet to ratify the agreement. Today's conference opener saw Russian President Vladimir Putin dashing hopes of immediate approval -- and impassioned appeals from Kyoto supporters to reconsider. From Moscow, RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 29 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was Russian President Vladimir Putin who two years ago first proposed the idea of hosting a climate change conference in Moscow. And it was Putin who confounded conference participants today by refusing yet again to commit to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming -- a document that cannot become legally binding without Russia's ratification.

"Russia is being called on to ratify the Kyoto Protocol as soon as possible. I am sure you will continue to hear those appeals during this conference. I would like to mention that the Russian government is examining carefully this issue together with a whole range of problems linked to it," Putin said. "A decision will be made only after this work has been completed and it will be made in accordance with the national interests of the Russian Federation."

Vladimir Gubaryov, a Russian member of the conference's organizational committee, later said Moscow could make a decision by the end of the year. But any hopes of an immediate turnaround on Russia's Kyoto stance have been dashed for the remainder of the five-day meeting.

Joke Waller-Hunter, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees Kyoto, was diplomatic in her praise of Russia for its "commitment" to climate change issues. But her disappointment was obvious.

"We had hoped that [President Putin] would have been somewhat more specific on the date when he would expect the Russian ratification to take place," she said. "Last year in Johannesburg, the [Russian] prime minister announced Russia would ratify the Kyoto Protocol in the nearest future, and we had hoped the nearest future had come today and that we would have a clear signal."

The Kyoto Protocol is aimed at reducing emissions of so-called "greenhouse gases" like carbon dioxide that are believed to contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere. Russia's ratification of the agreement is considered crucial because the protocol will only become legally binding once it has been ratified by signatory states that represent 55 percent of developed countries' carbon dioxide emissions. Kyoto has been ratified by countries representing 44 percent of emissions. Russia is held responsible for producing 17 percent of the world's emissions. The United States, which has withdrawn its support for Kyoto, is the world biggest offender, producing an estimated 36 percent of the world's emissions.

Now, with Russia holding the key to Kyoto's future, Russian media are speculating that Putin may be looking to drum up greater financial guarantees before agreeing to ratify the protocol. Some have also suggested that Russia may be looking to sell greenhouse gas emission quotas to over-producing nations. Yuri Izrael, a Russian conference representative, refused to comment on such speculation, saying "Everyone's always talking about selling quotas, but what about the climate?"

But it was another seemingly offhand remark -- by Putin himself -- that sparked the most controversy.

"In Russia you can often hear -- either as a joke or seriously -- that for a northern country like Russia, it won't be that bad if it gets 2 or 3 degrees warmer. Maybe it would even be better -- we would spend less on fur coats and other warm things, and agriculture specialists say our grain production will increase, and thank God for that. All that is true," Putin said. "But we must also think about something else. We much think about the consequences of global climate change."

Despite the Russian president's attempt to address the concerns surrounding global warming, many participants found his tone worrisome. Canada's Environment Minister David Anderson said Putin's remarks were causing him to question Russia's sense of responsibility.

"Our countries also need to address the interests of many different regions and different stake-holders in setting our national priorities and our policies. So our two nations face distinct but parallel challenges in taking action on the sustainable development and priority of our time which is action on climate change."

Anderson also outlined the duty that all "northern countries" like Russia and Canada share in protecting the global environment.

"Three-quarters of the world's Arctic region falls within the jurisdictions of Canada and Russia. This vast and fragile environment is the one that is particularly threatened and first affected by climate change. And as the primary stewards of the world's Arctic region, Canada and Russia have a special responsibility."

Godwin Obasi, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said even if global warming could theoretically produce certain benefits in Russia, what is advantageous to some "is bad somewhere else." He said as many as 110 million people have seen their lives affected by global warming.