Blair pledges to use G8 presidency to act on global warming

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Tony Blair warned last night that climate change will result in "catastrophic consequences" for the world unless the major economies agree on immediate and decisive action to combat it.

Tony Blair warned last night that climate change will result in "catastrophic consequences" for the world unless the major economies agree on immediate and decisive action to combat it.

The Prime Minister promised to lead a new crusade to persuade the international community to act during Britain's year in the presidency of the G8 leading industrial nations, starting in January. He said that provided a "wonderful opportunity" and, despite the divisions over the Kyoto Treaty, he insisted an agreement was "achievable".

Crucially, he promised to try to bring the economies of China and India into the G8-led initiative. Britain's goal would be to reach a consensus on climate change and the threat it poses and then agreement on science and technology measures to ease the threat. As a first step, a scientific conference would be held in February at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter.

Giving the Prince of Wales's Business and the Environment Programme lecture, Mr Blair said the world's greatest environmental challenge was "so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence".

Global warming was increasing at a rate that was "simply unsustainable in the long term ... I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own".

He warned that its likely effect would not be felt to its full extent until after the time for the political decisions that need to be taken had passed.

Although he did not single out the United States, Mr Blair's keynote speech will be seen as a challenge to the Bush administration. He said: "It is the poorest countries in the world that will suffer most from severe weather events, longer and hotter droughts and rising oceans. Yet it is they who have contributed least to the problem. That is why the world's richest nations in the G8 have a responsibility to lead the way."

He also promised action when Britain holds the European Union's Presidency in the second half of next year. It will call for aviation, which could represent a quarter of the UK's contribution to global warming by 2030, to be brought into the EU emissions trading scheme.

But he acknowledged that to acquire global leadership on this issue, Britain must demonstrate it first at home. While the speech was short on specifics, measures will be laid out in a five-year plan for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and in Labour's election manifesto.

"We are on track to meet our Kyoto target. The latest estimates suggest greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 were about 14 per cent below 1990 levels. But we have to do more to achieve our commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010," said Mr Blair.

Calling for a "new green industrial revolution", he said British scientists, innovators and businessmen could lead the world in ways to grow and develop sustainably. There were immense business opportunities in sustainable growth and moving to a low-carbon economy. He said the Government could give a lead by ensuring environmentally sustainable school buildings and housing.

He insisted the Government's position on nuclear energy had not changed - it did not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary to meet Britain's carbon targets.

But ministers dismissed as "19 months old" a report from a senior Department of Trade and Industry official that nuclear power will have to provide half of Britain's electricity needs to meet the targets.

Earlier Mr Blair said there were still "major problems" with nuclear power, including the cost, public opposition, storage and waste. "We're not shutting the door on anything but you have to take account of those realities," he said.

He concluded last night's speech: "On most issues we ask children to listen to their parents. On climate change, it is parents who should listen to their children. Now is the time to start."