Global warming on back burner

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The world's largest and wealthiest polluters have promised to reform - but not just yet. Two weeks of ministerial negotiations on tackling global warming ended in Geneva yesterday with applause and hopeful statements, but no concrete commitments on cutting the level of emissions.

The most painful decisions are scheduled for a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, 16 months away, when the developed nations have committed themselves to coming up with something definite. After Geneva, the world is not much wiser about what that something will be.

What is needed, if the current change in climate is to be slowed down in the next century, is drastic cuts in the emissions of carbon dioxide which come mainly from burning coal, oil and gas.

The alternative is to hope that the man-made rises in temperature and sea levels, and the shifts in rainfall and winds will too slight to worry about. Coping with change in the future makes more sense than making sacrifices now, runs this argument from the Opec countries and the oil- and coal-industry lobby groups.

Ever since climate change became the subject of serious diplomacy six years ago, it has been clear that the developed nations - who have produced most of the carbon dioxide to date - would have to lead the way. Only when the United States, the European Union and Japan demonstrated they were serious could the rising carbon giants like India and China be expected to follow suit.

That continued to be the line at this week's United Nations talks in Geneva on strengthening the global climate treaty signed at the Rio Earth Summit four years ago. The 150 nations attending agreed, in a ministerial declaration, that the rich countries would commit themselves to ''legally- binding objectives for emission limitations and significant overall reductions within specified timeframes''.

The statement raises many questions. How can an objective be legally binding? ''We're not too excited about that, and we won't be putting it into our national legislation,'' said a member of the British delegation.

And what might constitute a significant cut within a reasonably effective timescale? Britain, which, with Germany, is one of the strongest campaigners for action in the rich world, has suggested 10 per cent cuts in emissions between 2000 and 2010.

But to the disappointment of the more progressive countries and environmental groups, the declaration proposed no percentage cuts and was vague on dates, suggesting 2005, 2010 and 2020.

''You just can't get the Americans to propose anything now because of their presidential election,'' said the UK delegate.

Even so, the progressives had worried that the US - the world's biggest single user of fossil fuels - would refuse to even consider binding itself to making cuts in the future. It was an American change of heart which allowed the declaration to be made, but instead of being fully accepted by the conference it was presented as a document of which delegates "took note" and was written into the official record.

Bill Hare, chief climate campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace International, said: ''We're disappointed at the lack of timetables and targets, but even so this declaration is a significant step forward.''

The document was rejected, however, by the fossil-fuel exporting countries of Opec, Russia and by Australia.