Britain proposed a new twin-track climate deal yesterday to end the logjam which has affected international talks on global warming since the failed Copenhagen climate conference last December.
In a surprise policy U-turn, the Climate and Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband, announced that the Government would agree to an extension of the current international climate treaty, the Kyoto protocol – something developing countries have insisted on but which has so far been rejected by the UK and the European Union as a whole.
Britain would accept a renewed Kyoto, Mr Miliband said, alongside the entirely new, legally binding global deal it has been pursuing. In effect there could be two separate international climate treaties, covering emissions cuts by different countries.
The move is ultimately likely to put pressure on China, one of the countries which blocked agreement at Copenhagen and now the world's biggest CO2 emitter, to join in a comprehensive new climate arrangement covering the whole world.
But if China was intransigent at the talks in the Danish capital, it was British and EU insistence on abandoning the 1997 Kyoto treaty which was the immediate cause of the talks' breakdown, and nearly led to a complete and humiliating collapse of two years of negotiations between 192 countries.
In the end, a limited ad-hoc agreement, the "Copenhagen Accord", was put together by world leaders during the conference's final day but it fell far short of the legally binding global warming treaty, with detailed targets for cutting global emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2, which had been Copenhagen's original objective.
In announcing yesterday that Britain would accept a renewal (technically, a "second commitment period") of Kyoto, Mr Miliband was in effect starting the climate talks all over again by sending a clear signal – and making a large concession – to developing countries, for whom maintaining the 1997 treaty had taken on almost totemic status.
"We are interested in trying to break the deadlock and find ways through some of the issues raised in Copenhagen," he said. "We do not want to let a technical argument about whether we have one treaty or two derail the process. We are determined to show flexibility as long as there is no undermining of environmental principles."
Developing countries have strongly supported Kyoto because it commits them to do nothing, at least initially, while getting rich countries to take on legally binding emissions targets. The poorer countries see this as a just reflection of the fact that most of the man-made greenhouses gases in the atmosphere were put there by countries such as the US and Britain, which should therefore be the first to take action.
But more than that, the treaty – indeed, almost the word Kyoto itself – had come to be seen as a talisman of the good faith of rich countries, while abandoning it tantamount to a betrayal of the developing nations.
In its place, Britain wanted a new treaty which would bring in all countries of the world, including the US – which George W Bush withdrew from Kyoto in 2001 – and commit the developing countries for the first time to cut back their own emissions, which from now on will far exceed the CO2 output of the developed world. China overtook the US as the world's biggest CO2 emitter in 2007.
Britain fought hard to achieve this new deal in behind-the-scenes negotiations, and persisted in the position despite many warnings that the poorer countries were simply too attached to Kyoto to give it up. In the end, the draft text of the non-Kyoto deal was leaked, widely criticised by developing countries as a betrayal, and the talks ran into the ground.
Britain still wants the new arrangement, binding on all countries, and yesterday Mr Miliband insisted that it was the only way forward.
As the price of attaining it, he said the UK would accept a renewal of Kyoto, so that there would in effect be two international climate treaties running in parallel. But he stressed that Britain would not accept one without the other.
In part, this is a response to the bloody nose the Government was given in Denmark, and a recognition that its hard-line, no-Kyoto policy was unrealistic. But it is also smart politics, as it will remove the objections of developing countries, but box China into a corner with its own objections to a new legal deal.
"We are uncompromising about the need for a legal framework covering everyone, but we are willing to be flexible about the precise form that takes," Mr Miliband said. "By making these proposals, we can take away this myth that developed countries were trying to destroy Kyoto and get on with a legal treaty."