Government officials and environmental experts from 180 countries will gather in Milan, Italy\'s business capital, from December 1-12 for an annual review of U.N. efforts to curb climate change.
They will haggle about the fine print of the U.N.\'s 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming amid worries that it may never enter into force.
Moscow holds the key to the entire Kyoto project after a U.S. pullout in 2001 but prospects of any quick decision by Moscow have faded after President Vladimir Putin in September backed away from Moscow\'s promises to ratify soon.
Kyoto needs to be approved by countries accounting for 55 percent of emissions by developed countries to enter into force. Ratifications have so far reached 44 percent and cannot reach the target for approval without Russia\'s 17 percent or the U.S.\'s 36 percent.
President Bush has said that Kyoto - aimed at limiting emissions of carbon dioxide from oil, coal and natural gas burned in power plants, factories and cars - is too expensive and wrongly excludes developing nations.
Many experts now reckon Russia may take months to decide, with parliamentary elections on December 7 and presidential elections in March, which Putin is expected to win.
\"I think we will have to wait until after Duma elections and then Putin\'s own election next spring,\" said Jennifer Morgan, climate policy director at the WWF environmental group. She predicted that Russia would end up saying \"Yes.\"
Greenpeace climate policy director Steve Sawyer said Russia\'s intentions were tough to guess. \"Russia is into the elections and Putin versus the oligarchs. No one is talking about Kyoto,\" he said.
With Russia on hold, most governments will shift to focus on ways to tackle longer-term challenges of climate change - that many argue will need far more drastic action than Kyoto\'s plan to cut emissions by five percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Environmental groups say more aggressive moves are needed amid evidence that global warming is accelerating.
2003 is looking to be one of the planet\'s hottest years on record. A severe European heatwave led Alpine glaciers to Milan\'s north to lose an average of 3 meters of thickness - roughly 10 percent of their volume - this summer alone, according to the Italian Meteorological Society.
\"Awaiting Russian ratification I hope that this meeting will give a chance to have a broader discussion about climate change,\" said Boerge Brende, head of a U.N. commission following up pledges made at a 2002 Earth Summit including to halve poverty by 2015.
But much of the conference will be taken up by the fine print of Kyoto, like working out rules for how countries can plant forests to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Issues include what happens if a forest burns down and whether a rubber or other type of plantation can gain countries points under a controversial emissions trading system.
Those questions may seem esoteric when there is a chance Moscow may never sign up. \"Worries about Moscow may mean the Milan meeting will feel like a sinking ship,\" one diplomat said.