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Predictions of the demise of the Kyoto Protocol are just more hot air

By Steven Guilbeault - posted Friday, 12 December 2003

In the past ten years, it has been almost impossible to count the number of times that the Kyoto Protocol has been declared 'dead'.

The international agreement to address climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions - which is still waiting to come into force - has endured years of premature obituaries. This is mainly thanks to the obstructionist efforts of the USA - which point blank refuses to ratify the agreement but insists on interfering in talks - and the coyness of Russia - which has consistently promised its intention to ratify, but has frustratingly delayed actually doing so.

The first time Kyoto was being prematurely buried was just before the Kyoto meeting in 1997 when many observers predicted that big polluters, such as Russia, Canada, the USA and others, would never agree to sign up to an agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions. In the end, Kyoto was adopted and a global agreement for an average of a 5 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was reached. Then in The Hague in 2000, negotiations on how to achieve this reduction collapsed. The same observers said "That's it. Game over".


About four months later, The US President, Mr Bush, decided to pull out of the agreement - apparently at the insistence of the oil industry, led by Mr Bush's pals at Exxon. Again the nay-sayers were reading eulogies for the Kyoto Protocol. Yet, in July 2001 the nations gathering at next round of negotiations decided that the planet just couldn't afford to wait for Mr Bush to come to his senses and they decided to move ahead without the USA. The Protocol can still come into force without the USA, but requires Russia to be on board to reach the global target of 55 countries representing 55 per cent of industrialised countries' 1990 emissions.

This week a minor media frenzy has been generated by a Russian bureaucrat, Andrei Illarionov, who is an economic advisor to the Kremlin, saying on Tuesday that "Russia would not ratify the Protocol in its current form" and that it was "impossible for Russia to consider undertaking responsibilities that place serious limits on the country's growth".

Few media outlets took the time to verify whether or not Mr Illarionov was speaking on behalf of his boss. Those that did reported that "the Russian government does not yet have a clear position on the Kyoto Protocol". In fact, on Wednesday Russia's deputy economy minister, Mukhamed Tsikhanov, said: "There are no decisions about ratification apart from the fact that we are moving towards ratification."

In the past two months, President Putin has told three different heads of State that Russia would ratify. He confirmed Russia's intention of ratifying to the Canadian and Japanese Prime Ministers, Mr Chrétien and Mr Koizumi during the Asia-Pacific Summit and repeated this affirmation to the Italian President, Mr Berlusconi, during the E.U.-Russia summit two weeks ago in Rome.

It comes down to either believing the Russian President, who has the authority to speak for his government and its intentions, or a bureaucrat, who does not. The current round of Kyoto negotiations are happening now in Milan and key nations - in this instance Russia - are playing politics with the climate, yet again.

The Kyoto Protocol is the only international framework to address climate change. The science is clear. Human activities are changing the global climate system in dangerous ways. Glaciers are disappearing, vector-borne diseases are spreading, global average temperatures are going up, sea levels are rising, polar regions are melting. Scientists warn that the magnitude of the problem is only gradually being understood and it's much worse than originally thought. Globally, we cannot afford to play politics with the only international agreement to address climate change.


Voices claiming that the Kyoto Protocol is dead are calling the score before the end of the game - and claiming victory for the wrong team. Kyoto is not dead. And we can't allow it to be killed if we want to protect the planet.

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About the Author

Steven Guilbeault is a Political Advisor on Climate for Greenpeace International.

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