G8 seeks to heal climate change rift

Environment ministers from the Group of Eight industrialised nations met in London on Tuesday to discuss action to tackle climate change ahead of crucial negotiations on the future of the Kyoto protocol.

Margaret Beckett, the UK’s environment minister, said: “We want something on which the whole world can agree [on climate change].”

She addressed the “serious divide” that has opened up between the US and some developing nations on the one hand, and the European Union, Canada and Japan on the other over the correct approach to climate change.

While the EU and other developed nations have favoured sticking to the formula of the United Nations-brokered Kyoto protocol on climate change, which requires participants to cut their greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels, the US has proposed instead a reliance on new technologies to replace some of the fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases, when burned. This approach has the backing of some developing countries which fear their economic growth could be compromised if they agree to cuts in their greenhouse gas output.

Ms Beckett indicated that the UK, whose prime minister, Tony Blair, has made climate change one of his top priorities on the international stage, was trying to bridge the gap between the two sides.

“This is clearly a false divide,” she said. “Technology is essential to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, and targets – or goals or objectives, set by country or sector or internationally – have a vital role to play in driving forward that progress.”

Later this month, the UN will preside over a conference at which the EU will try to press for the start of negotiations over the future of the Kyoto protocol, the main provisions of which expire in 2012. The US, which has rejected the Kyoto treaty, will be present but will be able to participate fully only in some areas.

The agreement of the US – the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – is seen as essential to opening up negotiations, but US officials have repeatedly said it would be “premature” to engage in such negotiations.

Claude Mandil, executive director of the International Energy Agency, emphasised the role of energy efficiency measures in cutting emissions: “Energy efficiency can be very cost-effective. You invest and get a return; it’s very positive. We should not wait [for new] technologies [but implement energy conservation measures now].”

Tuesday’s meeting was the result of an agreement reached at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in July. More meetings have been agreed under future presidencies, including a further meeting of the G8 on climate change to take place under the Japanese presidency of the G8 in 2008.

Environmental groups said the treaty was crucial to tackling climate change. Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, said: “Ahead of the vital Montreal meeting, we need governments to reaffirm their commitment to the Kyoto agreement and step up the pressure on the US to sign up.”

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