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OSLO (Reuters) - A world plan to fight global warming went into force on Wednesday, feted by its backers as a lifeline for the planet but rejected as an economic straitjacket by the United States, the world's top polluter.
After years of delays, the Kyoto Protocol (news - web sites) on curbing human emissions of heat-trapping gases by 2012 took effect at midnight EST amid muted celebrations including a ceremony in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto where the pact was signed in 1997.
"Climate change is a global problem. It requires a concerted global response," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites) said in pre-recorded remarks to be aired in Kyoto.
"I call on the world community to be bold, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, and to act quickly in taking the next steps. There is no time to lose," he said.
Environmental group Greenpeace flew a hot air balloon over Kyoto, emblazoned with the message: "New dawn for the climate." It said it held other celebrations from Bonn to Bangalore.
Supporters of the 141-nation pact say it is a first step to slow global warming. Climate experts fear temperature increases could lead to rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns and wipe out thousands of animal and plant species by 2100.
But the United States pulled out in 2001, saying Kyoto was too costly, based on unreliable science and unfairly excluded big developing nations India, China and Brazil, which account for a third of the world's population.
Among major developed nations, only Australia has joined the United States in refusing to cap emissions of gases like carbon dioxide emitted mainly by burning fossil fuels in cars, factories and power plants.
"Climate change is happening already...but we know Kyoto is only a first step," European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said.
He called Kyoto a cause for "sober celebration," noting that the World Health Organization (news - web sites) believed climate change was already killing 150,000 people a year.
In Sydney, ice sculptures of kangaroos and koalas melted during a protest by green groups over Australia's refusal to ratify the pact.
In China, home to 1.3 billion people and one of the world's fastest-growing economies, a man dressed as a gloomy looking polar bear took to Beijing's streets as part of Greenpeace China's campaign to explain the impact of climate change.
And a U.S. conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, urged Washington to list the polar bear as an endangered species, saying the Arctic icecap was likely to melt in summertime by 2100.
The Kyoto pact is the first legally binding plan to tackle climate change. It requires developed nations to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-12.
Its fate beyond 2012 is unclear because of Washington's decision to stay out of the plan President Bush (news - web sites) has called fatally flawed. His administration once denounced it as "an unrealistic and ever-tightening regulatory straitjacket."
The United States accounts for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.
Kyoto backers say rich nations are probably the main cause of a 0.6C (1F) rise in world temperatures since the Industrial Revolution and should take the lead by cutting use of fossil fuels and shifting to cleaner energy such as wind and solar.
But Australia's Prime Minister John Howard says Kyoto unfairly exempts India and China.
"Until such time as the major polluters of the world, including the United States and China, are made part of the Kyoto regime it is next to useless and indeed harmful for a country such as Australia to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol," he told parliament on Wednesday.
In Russia, whose ratification last November gave Kyoto enough weight to enter into force, the government expressed hopes of selling spare carbon dioxide quotas abroad after the collapse of Soviet-era smokestack industries.
A new EU market enables polluters overshooting their targets to buy emission allocations from those falling below. Carbon dioxide trades at about 7.33 euros ($9.51) per tonne.
"The ratification of Kyoto, in my belief, will help Russia receive a series of benefits," presidential adviser Igor Shuvalov told the Vedomosti business daily.
Even if fully implemented, Kyoto would cut a projected temperature rise by just 0.1C by 2100, according to U.N. figures, tiny compared to forecasts by a U.N. climate panel of an overall rise of 1.4-5.8C by 2100.
For some, any reduction would be better than nothing. Remote South Pacific islands fear they are already seeing the future of global warming, as extreme high tides crash over crumbling sea-walls and flood their homes.
In Fiji, protesters with placards gathered on Wednesday outside the U.S. embassy in Suva. A photo on www.fijilive.com showed one placard reading: "Bush: Do you have a spare room at the White House -- mine got taken away by the sea!!"
(With reporting by David Fogarty in Singapore, Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg, Carrie LaFrenz in Sydney, Michelle Nichols in Canberra, Y.P. Rajesh in New Delhi, Lindsay Beck in Beijing, Dolly Aglay in Manila, UN bureau in New York, Jeff Mason in Brussels, Jeremy Lovell in London, Jonathan Thatcher in Moscow)