The targets in the treaty for cutting greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, agreed by the countries of the industrialised world, may not be met, said Dr Klaus Topfer, head of the UN Environment Programme.
Dr Topfer pointed to Hurricane Floyd as a typical example of the increased climatic instability that global warming is predicted to bring. "I'm not pessimistic, I'm realistic," he said. "We should be honest in analysis, in the question of where we are. But I'm not giving any signal of resignation."
However, his gloomy prediction, remarkable from a man in so senior a position, is a significant puncturing of the euphoria engendered by the agreement put together in Japan nearly two years ago.
Under its terms, Britain and the other leading industrial nations, including the EU members, the United States, Canada and Japan, agreed to make significant reductions in their emissions of six of the industrial gases known to be retaining more of the sun's heat in the atmosphere, in the so-called greenhouse effect. All the countries agreed to meet precise targets by 2010.
But the former German environment minister said that the programmes of action that had now been agreed were simply not enough. "Indications are that it is too late to prevent global warming," he said.
The protocol had started "in a very positive direction," he said, but what had been decided in the various countries "does not seem to be enough to reach the targets".
He would not single out individual nations, but in an unmistakable reference to the US said: "I really believe that the main contributor of emissions of CO2 must speed up its activities." America alone emits nearly a quarter of the world's CO2, but the US is still arguing about what to do, or not do, about its Kyoto commitments. Much of its business community and many members of Congress are against any action at all, while the Clinton administration is actively pressing the possibility of buying more on-paper reductions of CO2 from other countries, the so-called "hot air".
Real cuts in CO2 would involve much less use of motor vehicles and much more use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave and solar power.
Britain's Kyoto commitment is to cut back on its emissions of CO2 and other gases by 12.5 per cent to below their1990 levels by 2010. The Government has made its own commitment to make this a 20 per cent cut by the same date. It is still consulting about its action plan to deliver the cutbacks. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, had no comment about Dr Topfer's Kyoto warning.
International negotiations on taking the protocol forward will resume in a major international meeting to be held in Bonn at the end of next month.
Review, page 3
UN warning, page 6