The world must cut emissions or sacrifice the planet, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, told a meeting of governments on Thursday, in the most strongly worded statement on global warming yet made by the US administration.

She told representatives of 16 governments gathered for talks on climate change in Washington: “It is our responsibility as global leaders to forge a new international consensus on how to solve climate change . . . If we stay on our present path, we face an unacceptable choice: either we sacrifice global economic growth to secure the health of our planet or we sacrifice the health of our planet to continue with fossil-fuelled growth.”

She asked the governments present, which account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, to agree a long-term goal on emissions reduction, establish mid-term targets for the same and to help develop markets for low-carbon technologies.

Her words reflected how far US rhetoric on climate change has moved in the past six months.

President George W. Bush, who rejected the Kyoto protocol, had previously called into question the state of scientific knowledge on global warming, and the US has been seen by other governments as holding up progress on international talks.

His decision to host a meeting of big emitters took the world by surprise.The two-day meeting, which finishes on Friday, is intended to be the first in a series whose conclusions will next year be included in the United Nations process on finding a successor to the Kyoto protocol when its main provisions expire in 2012.

Despite the newly warm rhetoric on the climate, however, stark differences remain between the US and other countries which are unlikely to be resolved in this meeting. For instance, the US did not table a proposal for what the long-term goal on emissions cuts should be, suggesting that it sees the issue of emissions targets as contentious.

Yvo de Boer, executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told the Financial Times: “It’s difficult to organise a meeting to ask others to come up with proposals but not make one yourself.”

Mr de Boer said that despite differences, the US decision to hold a meeting was “a very useful, positive contribution” to international progress on tackling climate change.

He told the meeting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the
UN-convened body of the world’s leading climate scientists, had concluded that emissions needed to peak in 10-15 years and be halved by 2050, compared with 1990 levels.

Another point of contention is whether reduction goals should be set by international treaty, such as a successor to the Kyoto protocol, or at a national level.

Ms Rice indicated that goals on emissions cuts should be set at a national level rather than being international in scope.

She said: “Every country will make its own decisions, reflecting its own needs and its own interests [and] tackle climate change in the ways that they deem best”.

The US also favours voluntary targets for cuts rather than legally binding commitments.

But the UN argues that the best way to cut emissions is through a market
in carbon dioxide, which would put a price on emissions and enable poor countries to gain access to finance for clean technology, and which, for its proper working, would require medium- and long-term legally binding commitments to cut emissions.

“Voluntary targets are a waste of time,” Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, a US lobby group, said.

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