Leading article: The wheels are in motion and time is running out


The United Nations' climate-change conference in Bali has reached its halfway point. But the most encouraging moves in the struggle against catastrophic global warming seem to be taking place far from the conference hall.

Britain's Secretary of State for Business, John Hutton, is due to make an announcement in Berlin today on plans for wind power that could make the UK a genuine world leader in the field of renewable energy. We are blessed in these islands with vast natural energy sources in wind and tide. If this plan turns out to be as ambitious as sold, we will finally begin to capitalise on these resources. By all accounts, this represents a U-turn. Recent reports suggested that Mr Hutton was shying away from the Government's commitments on renewables on the grounds that they could crowd out private-sector investment in nuclear power. Mr Hutton appears to have been put right by Gordon Brown. If so, this is to the credit of Mr Brown. The Prime Minister now needs to reverse his decision to allow Heathrow airport to expand and he will begin to repair his environmental credentials.

Another encouraging shift has taken place on the other side of the wind-blown Atlantic Ocean. Apologists for years of White House inaction on climate change used to argue that this lethargy at least had democratic legitimacy, pointing out that in the 1990s, the United States Congress overwhelmingly rejected the Kyoto Protocol. This no longer stands. Last week, both houses of Congress advanced bills to cut emissions and boost the use of renewables. Meanwhile, 26 state governments have taken action on emissions without waiting for a lead from Washington. It is now plainer than ever that President George Bush stands almost alone within the US in his opposition to internationally co-ordinated action on global warming. While he no longer denies the science, Mr Bush is obstructing attempts to meet the threat. The President will step down in a year's time. But the world cannot simply wait for this disastrous administration to disappear when faced with a threat as urgent as climate change.

The target of keeping the heating of the planet within 2C requires urgent action to decrease emissions. The consensus of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is that global emissions must peak within 10 years, and then begin to fall rapidly by the middle of the century, if we are to achieve this minimum objective.

The outlook is not encouraging. There is a pessimistic mood among observers of the Bali meeting, which ends on Friday. Despite Australia's welcome change of stance under its new prime minister, China and the United States are reportedly resisting a commitment to mandatory caps on emissions. No successor to the Kyoto Protocol is expected to emerge from Bali. The best that can be hoped for is, apparently, a "road-map" for future talks. Yvo de Boer, the UN climate chief, has argued: "This meeting is not about delivering a fully negotiated climate change deal, but it is to set the wheels in motion."

Yet the wheels of catastrophic climate change are already in motion. Time is a luxury that our societies do not have. Our report today, outlining BP's ambitions to exploit the vast Canadian "oil sands", emphasises that we are heading in the wrong direction.

Unless the gathering in Bali is able to muster a significant step towards an international and mandatory system of emission cuts, it will go down in history as an unforgivably wasted opportunity. And thosegovernments that failed to play a constructive role in these negotiations will find their historical reputations stained indelibly.

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