A welcome deal on debt - but still the US derides Kyoto

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The Independent Online

One almost down, one to go, might be the verdict on the Government's preparations for the Group of Eight summit next month. With three weeks of preparation ahead, the international debt cancellation package so desired by Gordon Brown appears to be in the bag, and that is a notable achievement even if the aid and trade elements remain to be finalised. On the other headline issue of the summit, however - combating climate change - there seems to have been no advance, and none whatsoever on the horizon.

One almost down, one to go, might be the verdict on the Government's preparations for the Group of Eight summit next month. With three weeks of preparation ahead, the international debt cancellation package so desired by Gordon Brown appears to be in the bag, and that is a notable achievement even if the aid and trade elements remain to be finalised. On the other headline issue of the summit, however - combating climate change - there seems to have been no advance, and none whatsoever on the horizon.

In an interview with The Independent, the Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, was frank, both about the difficulties and about where to place the blame. There was, she admitted, "a degree of disappointment" about the refusal of the United States to give ground on this issue. It was also, she implied, accepted in both capitals that there was no chance this would change. She made clear that, so far as the US was concerned, Kyoto was "off the agenda"; even in the unlikely event that President Bush could be converted, the treaty would "probably" not be passed by the US Senate.

This is putting it politely. There is, and never was, the slightest chance that the Senate - Republican majority or no - would sign up to measures that it, along with most of the US public, believes would threaten the "American way of life". We can condemn Americans' selfish attachment to their cars, their profligate use of energy and their slowness to close polluting power stations. But this will not change before the G8 summit.

Something we may hear more about when the eight leaders gather at Gleneagles is a new global forum for "dialogue" on energy-use and new technologies, in which non-G8 countries, such as China, could also be involved. This would not bring US agreement on climate change, but would not be the worst of options. China may have ratified the Kyoto treaty, but its soaring consumption has the potential to destabilise the world energy market. There may be a case for trying to go beyond Kyoto.

That said, however, there may be lessons from the accord on debt relief that can be applied to the transatlantic rift over climate change. More than 20 years ago, before Bob Geldof and Live Aid made the rich world aware of the extent of hunger in Africa, Third World debt was hardly a popular issue. For aid given by one set of contributors to be taken back in the form of interest repayments, leaving many poor countries worse off, tended to be seen as a theoretical, small-print issue, to be considered far below the urgent needs of the starving.

That an accord has been reached that will cancel all the debts of 18 of the world's poorest countries and set conditions for new assistance shows how much has changed. And change has happened at least in part because of strong and sustained public pressure: it did not originate with banks or national governments. Simply, popular understanding of the vicious circle of indebtedness and poverty is far superior now to what it was a generation ago. It is in no rich country's interests to be perceived as profiting from the poverty of another - and the United States is no exception.

There are small signs in the US that pressure to tackle climate change is starting to grow, and that it is coming from certain parts of the country and sections of the scientific community. Thus calls for new emissions curbs and limits on "gas-guzzling" cars is coming at regional levels. Margaret Beckett as good as admits Britain has been pushing the US to go further and faster. But if the history of debt relief is any precedent, there will be more arguing to come and public pressure will have a big part to play. The US will not see sense in time for Gleneagles, but all the pushing may not, in the long term, be in vain.

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