Leading article: Too little, too late

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The Independent Online

There was certainly cause for encouragement from this week's informal Washington climate change conference. Delegates from G8 countries as well as China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa concluded with an agreement that man-made climate change is "beyond doubt". They agreed, too, that developing countries, as well as rich countries, must accept targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. There was also a consensus that a successor to the Kyoto protocol on climate change must be in place by 2009.

This highlights a welcome change in mood among politicians from the world's largest polluters. Kyoto made no emission-reducing demands on developing countries. There is an emerging consensus that the successor treaty must place targets on China and India. With China building a new coal-fired power station almost every week, this is essential.

Yet a crucial problem remains. The United States, under the present administration, rejects the need for mandatory targets. The White House under President Bush still believes technology will come to the rescue. There will never be serious engagement from developing countries on climate change while the world's richest country and biggest polluter behaves as if it were business as usual.

It is true that encouraging signs are emerging that President Bush's successor will adopt a more enlightened approach. The likely Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, who was present at the conference, is signed up to the need for serious initiatives on climate change. Senator Joe Lieberman has forecast that the US Congress will enact a law on cutting emissions by the end of next year. And many US politicians believe that America, outside the White House, is ready for mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

But even then, the world will have to wait until 2009 for change. That means two years of inaction. Those are two years that we can ill afford. The revelation this week of fast-moving rivers of water beneath the massive ice sheets of Antactica and the latest report this month from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show that the climate emergency is more advanced than previously believed. Yet global politics continues to lag irresponsibly behind.