Prescott flies to Tokyo to save the world and encounters only hot air

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Emergency talks on how nations should tackle the threat of global climate change made disappointingly little progress in Japan over the weekend. Time is running out, explains Nicholas Schoon, our Environment Correspondent.

Three weeks from today, ministers and officials from more than 100 nations are due in Kyoto, Japan, to reach an agreement on what to do about reducing the risks of catastrophic changes in climate and sea level.

They have had two-and-a half-years since the last high-level summit to hammer out a deal but it is hard to see how they can, so fundamental are the differences between countries. So over the weekend, conference host Japan held a special ministerial meeting for 20 nations and the European Union to try to bring them all closer. The invitees included rich and poor countries and were intended to embrace all the main players.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who flew to Tokyo to chair a day-long gathering of developed nations ministers, said afterwards: "It's a horrendous task to get agreement with such wide disparities."

About the only thing nations can all accept is that regional climates will change and sea levels rise in the next century, due to humanity consuming more and more fossil fuels and burning forests, thereby raising concentrations of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere. But they differ widely on how large a threat these changes pose and what the appropriate response is for slowing down the rate of global warming. The European Union takes the greenest position among the developed world, calling for industrialised nations to cut their annual emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, by 15 per cent from their 1990 level.

The United States, the world's biggest producer of these, is calling only for rising emissions to be brought back down to their 1990 level by around 2010. The problem with this is that it looks merely like a delaying tactic because five years ago at the Rio earth summit the developed countries agreed they should stabilise at the 1990 level by 2000.

In Tokyo this weekend there was no progress in coalescing around a common target. Nor was there any breakthrough in committing developing countries to capping their emissions. In many these are rising far more quickly than in the developed world as they rush to industrialise.

Back in Berlin in 1995, when the basic terms of the Kyoto negotiating mandate were set out the developing nations were not included. It was for the rich world, which has produced the lion's share of climate- changing pollution to date, to get its own house in order first.

But since then some other countries, especially the US, have shifted the goalposts and said the Third World must make some kind of commitment to restraint at the same time.

This has made the bargaining in the run-up to Kyoto much more difficult.