Cloud over Kyoto

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Bill Clinton never managed to persuade Congress to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change when he was president.

But this week he hopes to persuade more than 300 chief executives, heads of state and non-governmental organisations to sign up to a list of actions to combat the problem.

Climate change will form one of the four themes of the Clinton Global Initiative, along with poverty, religious conflict and governance.

Events have been swinging in Mr Clinton’s favour. This year has seen more international activity on climate change than ever before. The G8 discussed the issue at Gleneagles in July, promising to help developing nations gain access to technology that would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Tony Blair, prime minister of the UK, has also made the issue a priority for his presidency of the European Union this year, and the EU’s mandatory scheme requiring businesses to cut their greenhouse gas emissions kicked off in January.

Most of all, the Kyoto treaty - brokered by the United Nations while Mr Clinton was president - finally came into force.

For years after the Kyoto treaty was negotiated in 1997, observers confidently predicted that rejection by the US doomed the measure to oblivion. But contrary to those expectations, the protocol entered into force this year without US participation.

However, Mr Clinton will be under pressure to show that his initiative bears real fruit, rather than providing simply another opportunity for politicians and company leaders to make vague promises with little hope of ever being translated into action. Environmental pressure groups have complained that for all the seeming activity this year, little has actually been achieved.

Tony Juniper, international vice-chairman of Friends of the Earth International, said: “The G8 delivered nothing new and the text [of the final statement] conveys no sense of the scale or urgency of the challenge. The action plan, without any targets or timetables, will deliver very little to reduce emissions or to roll out renewables to the scale required.”

Even among the supporters of Kyoto, many nations are unlikely to meet their emissions reduction targets under the protocol.

Business leaders attending the meeting in New York may be receptive to the idea that tackling climate change can make good economic sense, especially given the soaring oil price and increasing pressure from governments.

Tony Blair has repeatedly said: “Significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions need not come at the cost of economic growth.”

If companies achieve those cuts through energy efficiency measures, they can save billions. DuPont, the US chemicals group, has saved as much as $2bn since 1990, according to the Climate Group, an environmental not-for-profit organisation based in the UK. BT Group, the UK telecoms company, saved £119m between 1991 and 2004 in better use of energy, and by more efficient use of its transport, saved £421m in the same period.

Companies can also find business opportunities in developing new technologies that are more environmentally sound than conventional techniques.

Earlier this year, Jeff Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, summed up how he thought environmentally sound goods and services had the power to change the economy, equating the green of the dollar and the green of the environmental movement by saying: “Green is green.” He launched Ecomagination, a new initiative which will see the company invest in equipment that cuts greenhouse gas emissions.

If Mr Clinton can wring concrete action plans from the assembled dignitaries, he will fulfill one of the aims that eluded him during his presidency. While he was in office, Mr Clinton took a keen interest in climate change, as did vice-president Al Gore, who now invests in environmental projects.

Dirk Forrister, managing director of the carbon brokerage and advisor Natsource, worked in the Clinton White House as chairman of the climate change task force. He said: “This was a subject that [Mr Clinton] saw as part of his legacy.”

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