David Miliband: Cameron is wrong. Setting targets will not save the planet

Climate change is the greatest threat faced by humanity

Tomorrow Sir Nicholas Stern will publish his review into climate change. Last Thursday, when he gave a presentation of his findings to the Cabinet, my mind was drawn to what it would have been like to be at the discussions in 1942, when Sir William Beveridge presented the findings of his report on social insurance.

This led to changes that transformed the country after the Second World War and included the establishment of the NHS. The Stern review could mark a similarly decisive a turning point in the global battle over the climate.

Stern presents a stark warning. Climate change is the greatest threat faced by humanity, and the longer we wait for global action the harder and more expensive it will be to tackle. But climate change is not insoluble.

As Al Gore says, the UK has a proud record over the past decade. We are on track to more than meet our Kyoto greenhouse gas targets. Between 1997 and 2005, greenhouse gas emissions have been cut by 7 per cent. UK leadership in the EU and the G8 has helped to close the debate on science, and brought forward that on solutions.

But every government in the world, as well as every business and citizen, has to do far more. In the context of the Stern review, the Government is determined to meet a number of targets.

First, we need to forge equitable global agreements founded on science. The UK is involved in negotiations which are due to start next week in Nairobi on a new international protocol. Second, we need to encourage further the trillions of private-sector money invested in low-carbon sources. That is the significance of the World Bank engagement in the Glen-eagles process established by the Prime Minister.

Third, we need long-term confidence that carbon emissions will have a price set on them that reflects their long-term environmental and economic damage. The answer is to extend carbon trading schemes to cover the whole global economy, including aviation. Fourth, we need immediate action to deal with the effects of climate change, especially in Africa.

Fifth, we are looking at whether UK law can provide a framework of certainty and confidence for the climate change debate. I am glad that David Cameron said in The Independent on Friday that he is serious about the environment. But it is not serious to pretend that annual targets on carbon emissions are the answer. Emissions are affected by things beyond the control of government: short-term fluctuations in energy prices; severe weather; the economic cycle. This is why annual targets are rejected by the Kyoto protocol. What does David Cameron propose that we should do if we miss one?

A ton of carbon emitted in Bangalore is as dangerous as a ton of carbon emitted in Birmingham. That is why the Kyoto protocol specifically encourages countries to pay for emissions reductions around the world and not just at home. An isolationist set of targets is not compatible with being green.

Finally, introducing new targets without the measures to meet them is worthless. The Government's energy review showed how to take 19 to 25 million tons of carbon per year out of the economy. This means a continued role of the Climate Change Levy and Renewables Obligation. The Tories have dismissed both, but the former, with its associated agreement, has reduced carbon emissions by 28 million tons, and the latter will be an annual £1bn subsidy for non-nuclear renewables by 2008.

Climate change is not actually an "environmental" issue; it is an economic, security and political issue. That is what drives the Government, and that is what we are determined to deliver.

David Miliband is Secretary of State for the Environment