Stephen Byers: Kyoto is not enough to tackle climate change

If the mood is changing in the US, then Britain's presidency of the G8 provides the way forward

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Today, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change comes into effect. It is significant because it represents agreed international action to tackle global warming. But it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that Kyoto provides a solution to the scale of the problem our world now faces.

Today, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change comes into effect. It is significant because it represents agreed international action to tackle global warming. But it would be a dangerous mistake to believe that Kyoto provides a solution to the scale of the problem our world now faces.

This is not due to the refusal of the US to sign up, or the fact that countries which are rapidly industrialising, such as China and India, are not required to make cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is that the cuts required by the Protocol are inadequate in the rapidly worsening situation. In addition, the focus on Kyoto over recent years, and whether or not it will come into force, has become an excuse for inaction. As a result the international discussions about the next step to build on Kyoto have not gained momentum.

Yet the urgency of the issue is clear. Climate change is no longer an abstract concept. Polar ice caps are melting. Sea levels are rising. The earth's temperature is undoubtedly climbing. The five hottest years on record have occurred in the last seven years.

So, Tony Blair was right when he said last year that in the long term climate change was the single most important issue faced by the world. No country, however rich and powerful, will be immune from its effects. And he has made the subjecta priority for Britain's leadership this year of the G8, and for the UK presidency of the European Unionin July.

Such action is not without political risk. There are two main dangers. The first is that potentially unpopular political decisions need to be taken now with the benefit not being seen for 10 or 20 years. There is a mismatch in timing between the electoral disadvantage and environmental advantage.

Secondly, no nation acting alone can resolve climate change. There has to be concerted international action with all countries playing their part. In particular, this means that somehow the United Stats, which is responsible for a quarter of the world's carbon emissions, must be engaged.

These are the political challenges facing Tony Blair. If Britain is to make a success of the G8 and the EU presidency, then it is going to have to lead by example.

The UK is on track to go significantly beyond the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required under our Kyoto obligations. However, we have also set our own national target relating specifically to carbon dioxide emissions - to reduce them by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010.

As things presently stand, much more will need to be done if this goal is to be achieved. For the sake of our international credibility we must remain committed to this target and use the present review of our climate change programme to come forward with a package of policies that will put us back on track to meet this ambitious carbon emissions reduction.

The European emissions trading scheme has huge potential to change the way thousands of businesses think about their energy use. Yet it has got off to a faltering start. The UK Government wishes to revise upwards the level of carbon allocations to business. The EU believes this proposal is too generous to industry and that as a result those businesses that cut emissions, and therefore have carbon allocations to sell, will find few takers, thus undermining the whole scheme.

This stand-off is to no one's benefit. The trading scheme could provide a model for the rest of the world to follow. The EU and the UK urgently need to find a way forward which puts the long term interests of us all first.

By our own actions at home we will be in a strong position to lead on the international stage. The G8 has the potential to be the vehicle by which the US can engage in discussions on climate change. I know that many regard the Bush administration as a lost cause. That the Texas oil lobby has a vice-like grip on energy policy. But there are signs that things are beginning to change. Post 11 September the issue of energy security has moved rapidly up the political agenda.

American financial institutions in general, and the insurance sector in particular, are increasingly concerned about the costs of extreme weather conditions. The insurance industry estimates the cost of claims from last summer's hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico will amount to more than $22bn (£11.6bn) in the Florida alone.

If the mood is changing in the US then the G8 provides the way forward. If we were to propose a Climate Group made up of the G8 plus those rapidly developing countries such as China and India to look at the action necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions there is a chance President Bush may be prepared to respond positively.

Today, we should give a single cheer for Kyoto but recognise that there needs to be a fresh injection of political will if we are to achieve a new global consensus that will provide the world with the means to meet the challenge of climate change.

The writer is co-chair of the International Climate Change Task Force

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