Leading article: Boldness abroad, but cowardice at home

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair has entered his last season of international summitry and, unsurprisingly, wants to make the most of it. Yesterday the Prime Minister held talks with the German President, Angela Merkel, in advance of the EU meeting next month and the G8 summit in June. The two leaders discussed the Middle East, world trade talks and Africa. But the most pressing topic on Mr Blair's mind was devising a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It is increasingly clear that Mr Blair is hoping for a strong green legacy in international affairs.

Two years ago Mr Blair came up with the idea of a forum called Globe that would bring together parliamentarians and representatives from rich countries and fast-developing nations to combat climate change. The fruits are beginning to appear. Today, through Globe, senior Republican and Democraticleaders meet representatives from India and China in Washington. Members of the Chinese Communist party's environment and energy committees will sit down with the prospective Republican Presidential candidate John McCain.

Mr Blair believes the time is ripe for such an initiative. His advisers point out that US businesses are coming round to the idea of serious action on climate change. Blue-chip companies like Boeing and Dupont are in discussion about carbon allowances. The political atmosphere in the US seems to be changing, too. States have shown an interest in reducing emissions - California hopes to enter the EU emissions-trading scheme. The fact that President Bush is still in office is regarded as a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. The next US President will take over in January 2009. Mr Blair feels a new global treaty can be in place ready for him or her to sign. The Prime Minister also believes that he is in an ideal position to drive all this through. After he leaves office this year, Mr Blair, thanks to his formidable reserves of popularity in the US, will have access to leading political figures over there.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. It may even do some good. No one would deny that Mr Blair is a formidable political operator. But he should beware of overestimating his green credentials. His record on climate change in office has been distinctly unimpressive. Britain's CO2 emissions have actually risen under Labour. And in his last Queen's Speech he shunned a proposed bill for binding annual cuts in carbon emissions, despite the fact that ample political cover for the legislation was provided by the support of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. While Mr Blair's rhetoric on climate change has been full of boldness, his actual policies have been characterised by a shameful timidity.

It emerged yesterday that our Government is helping to block a European Commission proposal for a binding 20 per cent renewable-energy target by 2020. Britain apparently argued that member states should have "flexibility" to set their own targets. This betrays a terrible complacency. At present the EU has a non-binding goal of increasing renewable fuels to 12 per cent of the energy mix by 2010, which is likely to be missed. It is clear that an enforcement mechanism is needed.

Simply setting targets and expecting change is useless. Unpopular legislation to bring them about must be put in place. This is what Mr Blair has failed to understand. While he pushes for a new agreement on climate change, several EU countries are not even on course to meet the targets set out under Kyoto.

If Mr Blair wants to devote his energies to climate change when he leaves office, good luck to him. But it is a scandal that he did not do more to forestall global warming when he was in a position to have a direct impact on this threat to our world.