Proposals to store tens of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide under the seabed are to be unveiled by ministers tomorrow in a dramatic attempt to tackle global warming.
Elliot Morley, the environment minister, will ask the world's leading industrial nations to support a plan to develop underground reservoirs of carbon dioxide around the globe by using disused oil fields and old water sources in the surface of the earth.
Ministers believe that the proposal - which has infuriated some environmentalists - has been given increasing urgency by the latest scientific studies, which warn that the effects of climate change are accelerating and posing fresh problems for the environment.
The Government's chief scientist, Professor David King, warned earlier this month that there had been a sudden and unexplained jump in CO2 levels in the atmosphere over the past two years - risking a sudden surge in global warming. Scientists also fear that man-made CO2 is making the seas more acidic - and could kill off plankton and coral reefs.
Mr Morley told The Independent on Sunday that storing CO2 in the seabed - a technique known as carbon sequestration - could help to make deep cuts in the UK's emissions of the gas. "Our priority is to reduce emissions but, as an interim move, carbon sequestration is an option we should be exploring," he said.
"If we are to move ahead with this option, we need to involve the international community, particularly to ensure we can be satisfied that it has proper safeguards built in for the marine environment."
Experts who back the proposal claim that, technically, the UK could store all its carbon emissions for more than 100 years in exhausted oil and gas fields in the North Sea. Around the world, similar projects could theoretically hold all man-made carbon emissions.
They claim the gas will be safely trapped in the bedrock for tens of thousands of years or more - long enough for the human race to stop and even reverse global warming, and to find a long-term alternative to the use of fossil fuels.
Mr Morley will unveil the plan in London tomorrow, when governments meet to discuss a major international treaty which bans the dumping of waste in the marine environment - the London Convention, set up in 1972.
If - as expected - they agree, Mr Morley will then ask the convention to set up a series of working parties to investigate the scientific and technical feasibility of the plan and address fears that the gas will leak out.
The revolutionary technique involves pumping liquified carbon dioxide at high pressure from places such as coal- and gas-fired power stations along pipes on the ocean floor.
Ministers are optimistic the proposal will be backed because the technique is already being tested in the North Sea by Norway and by the US government.
But the scheme will be heavily criticised by environment groups such as Greenpeace. It claims the plan is a technically unproven "distraction" from the real task of deeply cutting our use of oil, gas and coal.
Blake Lee Harwood, Greenpeace's head of campaigns, said: "This is the big excuse that oil giants like Exxon and Texaco are looking for, to avoid having to do anything about climate change. They will be dancing for joy at the prospect of a huge international push in this direction."