Leading article: An air of denial hangs over this gathering

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The Independent Online

In some ways, the gathering of six of the world's biggest polluters and assorted representatives of the global energy industry in Sydney is an indication of the success of environmental campaigners. Those attending this meeting of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate are making many of the right noises about global warming. All are agreed that climate change is a serious problem. No one denies that it requires urgent action. There is none of the disingenuous questioning of the science by energy industry vested interests of the sort that was so common until recently. The debate has substantially shifted and this is due, in large part, to the determination of green campaigners.

But the debate has not shifted far enough. An air of denial still hangs over this gathering. The ethos of the meeting was summed up yesterday by the US Energy Secretary, Sam Bodman: "Those of us in government believe our job is to help create the environment, as such, that the private sector can really do its work." This is a thinly veiled way of saying that the market alone will solve the problem of climate change. This is the next illusion that needs to be dispelled.

The ire of environmental protesters on the streets of Sydney has focused on the coal industry. Coal is a good example of why the laissez-faire attitude to energy that has pertained for so long cannot continue. Coal generates a quarter of the world's energy. And as oil prices increase and gas supplies look unstable it will grow more popular. For the energy-thirsty economies of China and India, coal - which is cheap and abundant - is a lifeline. It is also the most polluting of all fossil fuels.

It is true, as representatives at the Sydney meeting will be keen to stress this week, that new technologies can make it cleaner. Coal washing and carbon capture techniques can cut emissions. And as-yet undiscovered energy technologies will certainly play a role in reducing global emissions. Last year's G8 meeting in Gleneagles was not a complete waste. It was a real achievement to sign up developing economies to the climate change agenda. There is now a greater chance of persuading them to adopt new, cleaner coal-burning techniques.

But technology must not become a distraction from the need for mandatory curbs on the emissions of developed countries. The pressure exerted by targets is vital to boost investment in new technologies. If initiatives such as emission trading schemes are to expand, there must be greater market incentives. The sad fact is that many energy lobbyists are now using the technology argument to fend off calls for statutory emission cuts.

When asked yesterday why he had such faith that businesses would adopt more expensive technologies in the absence of financial incentives, Mr Bodman replied: "I believe that the people who run the private sector - they too have children, they too have grandchildren, they too live and breathe in the world." That is true. But what really makes businessmen sit up and take notice is threats to the bottom line. With the world facing a crisis such as global warming, there is a moral responsibility on our governments to impose financial penalties on heavy polluters.

The evidence for global warming is multiplying. Asia is experiencing an unusually cold winter. A drought in Kenya is threatening the lives of more than two million people. The natural world is also under unprecedented threat. A deadly fungus unleashed by global warming is killing off the world's population of frogs. Radical action cannot be postponed. According to the International Energy Agency, if the world's governments stick with their present policies, global carbon emissions will be 50 per cent higher in 2030 than in 2005. This is not a problem that the market can be relied upon to solve.