Never mind Britain - can Labour save the world?

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Last week took me from spring in New York to renewal in Westminster and the - perhaps fleeting - hope that the second might dispel the gloom I found in the first.

Not that there was anything wrong with the Big Apple, or the season - that brief two weeks in which the city, with characteristic impatience, suddenly bursts into bloom. Even its notorious taxi drivers have acquired synthetic courtesy - a taped message in each cabthanks you at journey's end and reminds you to take your belongings and a receipt.

No, the gloom came from seeing an immensely important process inexorably running into the sand. Five years ago the Earth Summit in Rio reached agreement on an international agenda to tackle the world's looming environmental crises, through "sustainable development" - economic growth that does not overtax the world's resources. The agenda left much to be desired , but offered hope that a process of change could begin.

It also agreed to have a follow-up summit this summer. That seemed a good idea at the time, offering a chance to hold world leaders to account and spur them to further action. Now it looks like making no advance, a disastrous outcome because heads of government, hating to be associated with failure, would then want to forget the subject. The chances of success at vital negotations in December on combating global warming, for example, would sharply deteriorate.

I dropped in on the last days of a preparatory meeting for the summit to find that even one of the UN's toughest negotiators, the Egyptian Mostafa Tolba (a formidable banger of heads, who has been known to coop delegates up in airless rooms, stopping them leaving until they reach agreement in the early hours) was unable, as chairman, to point to any significant progress. And Derek Osborn, a former top British civil servant, who chaired one of the negotiating committees, told delegates that all that governments had achieved since Rio was "SLUDGE - Slightly Less Unsustainable Development, Genuflecting to the Environment."

MAYBE, just maybe, the election will help break the logjam. Some hope lies in its wholesale flushing of the political system - the swirling disappearance of all those old lags, intellectually corrupted by 18 years of Thatcherism, and their replacement with so many fresh new MPs.

The influx of women, in particular, will surely establish more civilised priorities, many of them green. And there is specific encouragement in the promises of Labour leaders themselves.

Robin Cook - who has a long and respectable green record - has pledged to "put Britain at the front of a crusade to rescue the global environment". And Tony Blair said in his foreign-policy campaign speech two weeks ago: "There can be no higher moral purpose than working to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development in the world's poorest countries."

He promised to begin to stop the decline of British aid and to use it more effectively for these purposes.

Early delivery on these promises would make quite a difference, for cash is the main sticking point. The rich countries promised at Rio to increase aid: instead it has fallen from half to one-third of the officially agreed target of 0.7 per cent of gross national product in the intervening five years.

There is no sign of this changing, despite emergence from the recession. The normally green Germans are obsessed with meeting the Maastricht criteria for the single currency, while one traditionally generous Scandinavian country actually proposed cutting the official target to 0.5 per cent.

If the new government began to break this depressing cycle, several as yet unagreed initiatives - such as a world-wide drive to provide clean water - could yet come alive at the summit. It might even begin to realise what the acronymic Mr Osborn called "DREAMS - Development Reconciling the Environment and Material Success".

I TOOK refuge from the meeting with a Samoan friend, Lelei Lelaulu, who was briefly confined in a British public school. Desperately homesick - half a world and a universe of attitudes away from the South Pacific - he wrote the usual letters to his parents ("I hate it here. They are trying to kill me"). No result. But came the day when the school kitchens served up bread-and-butter pudding. Lelei carefully preserved his portion, wrapped it in tin foil and sent it all the way home with a note: "Now do you believe they are trying to kill me?" He was immediately removed.

Agenda for a Green Government, Sunday Review