MOSCOW -- Russia's Cabinet approved the Kyoto Protocol on Thursday in a crucial step toward putting the long-delayed climate change treaty into effect, although without participation by the United States.
Final approval by the Russian parliament, which would push the treaty past its required ratification threshold, was not guaranteed, however. While the State Duma generally approves legislation backed by President Vladimir Putin, many Russian officials remain opposed to the pact, fearing its restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions could hinder economic growth.
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, on a trip to the Netherlands, said he expected "difficult debate" when the Duma meets to vote on ratification, possibly before the end of the year.
Putin's economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, lamented the Cabinet's approval was "a political decision that will damage national interests in many areas," the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
The treaty, drafted in 1997 at a U.N. conference in Kyoto, Japan, seeks to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that are widely seen as a key factor behind global warming.
Without Russia's support, the pact -- which has been rejected by the United States and Australia -- cannot come into effect. It needs ratification by 55 industrialized nations accounting for at least 55 percent of global emissions in 1990.
The Cabinet's action was cheered by United Nations officials, the governments of Germany, Italy, Britain and Japan and the European Union, which have been among the agreement's most fervent backers.
"Russia's green light will allow the climate train to leave the station so we can really begin addressing the biggest threat to the planet and its people," said Klaus Toepfer, head of the U.N. Environment Program.
At the European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, EU spokesman Reijo Kemppinen called the Russian approval "a very welcome event" and said the EU hoped the U.S. government would reconsider its position.
Disagreement on how to tackle global warming has been a major source of European ill feeling toward the United States, which alone accounted for about 36 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. The U.S. government says the pact would harm the U.S. economy and also argues it favors developing nations like China and India that are big polluters.
Under the pact, which would take effect 90 days after Russian ratification, industrialized countries are supposed to cut their collective emissions of six key gases to 5.2 percent below the 1990 level by 2012.
Environmentalists welcomed Russia's move, but said even bigger cuts are needed.
"The Kyoto Protocol undoubtedly sets very low targets compared to what scientists say is necessary in order to keep climate change under control," said Germana Canzi, a climate policy expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature. "However, it has always been considered a first step rather than the solution to the problem."
A new round of climate talks is scheduled for December in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and negotiations on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 are due to start next year.
"It is absolutely necessary to have a broader climate agreement where also the United States, especially, and Australia are taking part," said Leif Bernegaard, a climate expert at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency who took part in negotiations on Kyoto.
Canzi said developing nations such as China, which don't have specific emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol, also "will have to be included one way or another."
Few think the United States will change its stance soon, although there are hopes that business interests will impel reconsideration.
Being outside the treaty will prevent the United States from participating in international "emissions trading." Companies that emit less carbon dioxide than allowed will be able to sell unused allotments to those who overshoot the target, offering a profit motive for manufacturers to cut emissions and for other businesses to develop improved emissions technology.
Russia's emissions have fallen 32 percent since 1990 largely due to the post-Soviet industrial meltdown, but they have started to rise again amid an economic revival.
Illarionov, Russia's most outspoken Kyoto opponent, and other officials argue that joining the pact would stymie Russia's economic growth and make Putin's goal of doubling gross domestic product in a decade unattainable.
Russia has been under intense pressure from the European Union to sign on to the treaty, and Putin said in May that he would speed up approval in return for EU support of Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
"Ratification will remove many irritants in our relations with the EU," said Konstantin Kosachev, the powerful head of parliament's foreign affairs committee. "From the political viewpoint, I have always supported ratifying this pact."