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The Independent Online

Britain has launched what it believes to be the world's most ambitious programme for tackling climate change by cutting emissions of the greenhouse gases causing global warming.

Britain has launched what it believes to be the world's most ambitious programme for tackling climate change by cutting emissions of the greenhouse gases causing global warming.

The Government did so as international divisions on the future of the Kyoto protocol, the climate change treaty, began to emerge in the run-up to a conference in The Hague attended by representatives from 160 countries. The differences, especially those between the European Union (including Britain) and the United States, must be solved over the coming week or the protocol is in danger of foundering.

Britain's own 200-page plan is a comprehensive strategy for reducing emissions from the energy supply industry, business, transport and the domestic sector, which will more than meet the country's Kyoto commitments, said the Environment minister, Michael Meacher.

Launching the strategy yesterday, Mr Meacher said that by 2010 it would deliver cuts of 23 per cent (below 1990 levels) in emissions of the six industrial gases that the protocol is concerned with, far in excess of the UK's legally binding pledge to reduce them by 12.5 per cent.

Furthermore, he said, by the same date it would cut by 19 per cent emissions of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO 2), which the Government has made its own promise to reduce by 20 per cent. Mr Meacher said he was confident that this latter target would also be reached through other action by local authorities and the business community.

He said: "The whole issue of climate change is the greatest environmental challenge that we face today, and this is by far the most far-reaching climate-change programme produced by any country in the world. The Government has been pressing very strongly for an effective international response and for other countries to adopt the kind of policies we have."

Ministers chose yesterday to launch the programme to highlight the stakes in the conference in the Dutch capital. The core of the argument is over how the United States tackles it own enormous Kyoto commitment to reduce its CO 2 emissions. The Europeans insist that it must make at least half its reductions by substantive, concrete action at home, such as producing cars that use less petrol. The US would like to meet an unlimited amount of its target by alternative means, such as buying "unused" emissions cuts from other countries.

Mr Meacher, who will be attending the talks with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said Britain and the European Union would seek to ratify the protocol in 2002. It was extremely important that the US also ratified, he said, and that it took measures "within [its] own domestic economy" to get emissions down.

Britain's own programme focuses on energy efficiency and transport. It uses the climate change levy (Gordon Brown's "carbon tax") to prod heavy industry into making energy-efficiency agreements, for which they can obtain levy rebates. Negotiations are nearly completed with 10 industrial sectors, from steel to paper-making, representing at least 10,000 firms.

On domestic energy use, new standards of performance coming into effect in 2002 will require electricity and gas suppliers to help domestic customers, especially pensioners and those on low incomes, to save energy and cut fuel bills. By 2010, electricity supply companies will have to provide at least 10 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources, such as wind, wave and solar power.

On transport, which Mr Meacher said was the single fastest-rising cause of greenhouse gas emissions, the Government aims to get emissions down through a number of means, including an agreement between all European car manufacturers to produce vehicles emitting 25 per cent less CO 2 by 2008. The 10-year-integrated transport plan would allow local authorities to limit road transport by congestion and parking charges.

Mr Meacher denied a report that ultra-low sulphur diesel (ULSD), given a boost by a duty cut in Gordon Brown's recent pre-Budget statement, actually produced much more CO 2 than standard fuel because more of it was needed. There were significant air-quality benefits from switching to ULSD, he said, and he quoted a report by Shell which suggested that not all lorry operators reported an increase in consumption, and fuel companies were working on additives to improve fuel economy.

Environmental pressure groups gave the plans a guarded welcome.

Charles Secrett, the director of Friends of the Earth, said: "We welcome the Government's climate strategy, but we are deeply concerned that the carbon reduction targets won't be met.

"There are not enough climate pollution penalties nor incentives to help industry and householders [to] go green. It looks like the Environment Department's plans have been scuppered by other government departments."

Mr Secrett added: "Relative to other countries, Britain is doing OK, but much more is needed to combat the awesome threat posed by climate change."

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