The news from Moscow on Tuesday was not good — Russia, a senior official said, had decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Combined with President Bush's decision two years ago to abandon the pact, Russia's rejection would have effectively killed it. Then yesterday came word that it might have been a false alarm, a negotiating tactic to strengthen Moscow's leverage in economic talks with the European Union, and that Russia was indeed "moving toward" ratification.
Let us hope this is the case. The 1997 protocol has many flaws. It is, however, the only international response to the global warming problem thus far devised, and at the very least it provides a plausible framework for collective international action.
One would never know this by listening to the Bush administration. Indeed, it can be argued that Russia would not be having second thoughts about the Kyoto accord had Mr. Bush himself decided not to bail out. Under the terms of the agreement, Russia — whose economy collapsed in the 1990's, and whose global-warming emissions were thus well below the limits imposed by the treaty — would have profited handsomely from selling unused emissions credits to countries with booming economies. But the market for these credits, and Russia's potential economic gains, diminished sharply when the United States, which would have been a major buyer of credits, pulled out.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration continues to bad-mouth the treaty at every opportunity, the most recent example being an amazingly slippery piece of demagoguery by Paula Dobriansky, the under secretary of state for global affairs and the lead American delegate to a follow-up meeting on the Kyoto agreement that is now taking place in Milan. Writing in The Financial Times, Ms. Dobriansky begins by trashing the climate agreement as an "unrealistic and ever-tightening regulatory straitjacket." She then goes on to praise the Bush administration's alternative — a mix of research and development into "breakthrough" technologies and voluntary emissions controls by American companies — as much the better plan.
Ms. Dobriansky fails to mention two key points. The first is that the Bush administration's program would allow greenhouse gases to keep building up, even though atmospheric concentrations are already alarmingly high and the name of the game is to stabilize and then reverse them. Mr. Bush's approach would translate into an actual increase in emissions of 14 percent over the next decade.
The second is that voluntarism will not work. While some companies seem willing to do something about global warming on their own, history has shown that the private sector as a whole will neither create new technologies nor, more to the point, put them into broad use without strong financial incentives. The Kyoto framework provides just such incentives because it combines mandatory limits on emissions with substantial, market-based rewards for operating more efficiently and then asks all companies to do their part. Ms. Dobriansky's belief that companies will spend heavily on breakthrough technologies if their competitors are not doing likewise is sheer fantasy.
The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by 120 countries, including nearly all of the industrialized nations. Most have pledged to soldier on with their own efforts to reduce emissions, despite Mr. Bush's negativism and regardless of what Russia ultimately does. But it will not be easy for these countries to make major investments in cleaner power plants, alternative fuels and all the other things that must be done to reduce emissions while the United States, in effect, gets a free ride. The battle against global warming will never be fully joined unless America joins it.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company