Businessmen back urgent action to halt climate-change emissions

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An alliance of global businesses has called for a legally binding, international deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Yesterday 150 business leaders from countries including the US, Britain, China and Australia called on governments to agree a deal to tackle climate change at the United Nations conference starting on the Indonesian island of Bali next week.

The communiqu, signed by banking, media, telecoms, energy and retail companies, states that the scientific evidence is now "overwhelming" and demands an "urgent global response".

A binding agreement to reduce emissions would encourage investment in low-carbon technologies and provide business with the certainty it needs to begin releasing resources, the statement argues.

The business leaders echoed the findings of last year's Stern Review in which the British economist argued that bringing emissions under control now would cost less than one per cent of global GDP annually, whereas "business as usual" would quickly result in runaway climate change and an eventual loss of at least one-fifth of the world's GDP.

Science should decide the scale of emissions cuts, the business leaders stated, but it was clear that slower action now would make the inevitable switch to a lower carbon economy more costly and difficult in the future.

There has been a glut of eye-catching targets set by industrialised countries for emissions cuts by 2050, but very little has been said about the here and now.

"As business leaders it is our belief that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs of not acting," the statement read.

The Bali gathering comes at the end of a year of international awakening to climate change. Twelve months after the launch of Sir Nicholas Stern's report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the science is "unequivocal", the Nobel committee has shared its peace prize between Al Gore and the IPCC; and the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has toured the world calling for "bold action".

Concern is mounting among governments that public expectations may have run ahead of any likely outcome from the climate talks. Only a handful of heads of state, from countries such as Australia, Germany and Papua New Guinea, will even attend the meetings which will take place at the level of environment ministers.

"Bali is the beginning," said Papua New Guinea's Kevin Conrad, the lead negotiator for the G-77 group of developing nations. "It is about delivering a road map for the next two years."

Delegates from about 190 nations will meet on the holiday island from 3-14 December to try to lay the groundwork for a broader long-term pact to fight climate change.

Bali is already being described as "talks about talks" as negotiators seek a successor to the Kyoto protocol, which represents the only serious effort to date from the international community to deal with global warming. It is hoped that such an agreement could be ready to be signed at the UN meeting in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.

The marathon talks that gave birth to Kyoto failed to convince everyone and only binds 36 industrial nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. The US and developing nations such as China and India have no caps under Kyoto, which covers only a third of world emissions.

The outlines of that deal are largely clear but the detail will be fiercely contested. Any future deal would have to set targets for reduced emissions; deal with the costs of adapting to unavoidable climatic changes already in motion; to channel investment into new technology and to mobilise resources to deal with these objectives.

With George Bush entering his last year in office, the US position going into Bali is unclear and senior sources talk of leaving a "US-shaped hole" in the talks which could then be filled by the new administration. In the past the US has refused to sign up to any binding international agreement on carbon emissions because the caps would not apply to China and India.

The retort has come from the two developing world giants that they have played no part in creating the build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and cannot be expected to stymie their own economic growth to sort the problem out.

Mr Conrad said that the negotiating process was crippled by the need for unanimous agreement on every point.

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