Leading article: Heading off in the wrong direction

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The patience of Britain's environmental charities has been exhausted. When Tony Blair announced his intention to make climate change a priority during Britain's presidency of the G8 last December he was applauded by the likes of Greenpeace and the WWF. But less than one year later, that applause has given way to accusations of betrayal. Greenpeace yesterday dumped coal by the entrance of Downing Street and labelled Mr Blair a "climate failure". WWF took up the theme, pointing out that the Government's position on climate change has become indistinguishable from that of that arch-environmental villain, the US President George Bush.

We have had years of strong rhetoric from Mr Blair on the need to do something urgently about global warming. But this radicalism has begun to subside in recent months. Mr Blair announced at a conference in the US recently that "I'm changing my thinking on this". Part of this "new thinking" is apparently a rejection of binding reduction targets for carbon emissions. Last week he argued that the "blunt truth about the politics of climate change" is that no country wants to sacrifice its economy to meet the challenge of reducing emissions. Mr Blair now seems to believe that the only solution to climate change lies in new emissions-reducing technologies.

The rhetoric has softened, and so has the Government's will to hit its own targets. UK carbon emissions have begun to rise again in recent years. The Government is almost certain to miss its self-imposed target of 20 per cent reduction on 1990 levels by 2010. What hope, we must ask, is there of Britain hitting the 60 per cent reduction target for 2050? This is not to say the Government has been a total failure in respect to climate change. An emissions trading scheme has been introduced. And the efforts this summer at the G8 summit to get a commitment from China and India to implement new energy-saving power station technologies is a significant development. There are 500 new coal-fired power stations scheduled for construction in China alone.

But the Government is still heading in a wayward direction. A stout defence of the Government was delivered yesterday by Professor Sir David King, Mr Blair's chief scientific adviser. It was worrying to hear someone who once described climate change as a greater threat to mankind than global terrorism reduced to trumpeting a nebulous statement from the G8 pledging to "meet objectives" of reducing emissions as a substantial triumph for the Government.

The WWF is right. If the price of engagement with the Bush Administration is the scrapping of emissions targets, this is a price not worth paying. New technologies are likely to be invaluable if we are to make the transition to low-carbon economies. But the only strong impetus to develop such technologies will come from the discipline imposed by emissions targets. In their absence, the world will continue burning fossil fuels at a disastrous rate and nothing fundamental will change. If Mr Blair believes what he himself has said in the past about the scale of the threat of global warming, emission curbs must be imposed - even at the expense of affecting global growth rates.

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Negotiations to devise a successor begin in Montreal next month. It is not too late for the Prime Minister to rediscover his radicalism and push for ambitious emissions curbs for every country. The global mood is changing - even in the US. Twelve American states wish to engage in emissions trading. And, as the Prime Minister put it in far less appropriate circumstances, "sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing". Let Mr Blair heed his own advice.