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Get Real on Climate Change

by: Tony Blair    30 October 2005

This week is a potentially crucial week in the fight against climate change. On Tuesday, the UK hosts the first meeting under the new Gleneagles dialogue between the G8 and China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. I want to explain why this is important and why I believe the difficulties with the current climate change debate is the trouble with so much international politics: a reluctance to face up to reality and the practical action needed to tackle problems.

We know climate change is a major threat. And worries over security of energy supply and rising oil prices are pushing energy policy to the top of the agenda. But we must understand that neither issue can realistically be dealt with unless the US, the EU, Russia, Japan, China and India work together.

We also have to recognise that while the Kyoto Protocol takes us in the right direction, it is not enough. We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions radically but Kyoto doesn't even stabilise them. It won't work as intended, either, unless the US is part of it. It's easy to take frustrations out on the Bush Administration but people forget that the Senate voted 95-0 against Kyoto when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

We have to understand as well that, even if the US did sign up to Kyoto, it wouldn't affect the huge growth in energy consumption we will see in India and China. China is building close to a new power station every week. They need economic growth to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty but want to grow sustainably. We have to find a way, as a start, to help them.

Emissions trading is going well in Europe even if it is not finding it easy to meet Kyoto targets. And, of course, the first Kyoto commitment period ends in 2012. The challenge is what will come next. Will it be another round of division or what we need: a sound, rational, science-based unity, which ensures the right legally-binding framework to incentivise sustainable development?

There are huge opportunities in environmental technology and huge possibilities in sustainable development, if the right framework for low carbon energy generation can be stimulated. But none of this is going to happen unless the major developed and emerging nations sit down together and work it out, in a way that allows us all to grow, imposes no competitive disadvantage and enables the transfer of the technology needed for sustainable growth to take place.

That's the scale of the challenge - a challenge the Prince of Wales valuably raised again last week. But the mood is also changing. The scientific evidence is becoming more certain. Vicious climate disasters heighten public concern, whatever the precise link. In the US many states and much of industry wants a lead, and recent Senate votes are beginning to reflect this. China and India know that to be polluters in a world more and more sensitised to the environment is not smart and has impact on their people.

That's why Tuesday's meeting matters. It will focus on what is needed to make the transition to a low carbon economy. We need to see how the existing energy technologies we have such as wind, solar and - yes - nuclear, together with new technologies such as fuel cells and carbon capture and storage, can generate the low carbon power the world needs.

In the UK we have already been able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly and remain on track to meet our target under the Kyoto Protocol. We will soon be taking further action to achieve our domestic goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent by 2010. One policy being considered is the increased use of biofuels, already well developed in Brazil and the US. If we can achieve just 5 per cent of fuel from renewable sources by 2010 that has the potential to take more than one megatonne of carbon.

It is one of the new technologies we need to help tackle climate change. We need to create the right market conditions to increase the necessary investment to develop and install new low carbon energy generation - and to ensure it is shared with emerging economies. Chinese and Indian economic growth will be powered to a large degree by coal, which is both relatively cheap and readily available. This could be a relentless driver of global warming. But by developing and sharing new technologies for coal we can minimise its impact.

It is a modest but significant start that the EU has already agreed to work with China to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions. These talks are going well and we hope the first project will be underway in the New Year.

I believe Tuesday's meeting has an additional importance. The fact that we are meeting - and talking - in London about the challenges of climate change will also help create the conditions needed for us to look beyond 2012. This is the purpose of the UN process starting in Montreal next month. Whatever doubts and frustrations there might be about Kyoto and the difficulties ahead, Montreal is significant as it is the only forum in which formal negotiations on future international commitments take place.

At the beginning of the UK's presidency, I promised that Africa and climate change would be our main priorities. No one sensibly expected that we could solve these global problems overnight. They had every right, however, to expect solid progress towards solutions. I believe that progress is underway. It's good news, too, that both Russia and Japan have already made clear that they will take forward the work we began at Gleneagles during their G8 presidencies.

Climate change will only be addressed through both technological development and a robust, inclusive and binding international treaty. We are working hard to achieve both. This year has seen an unprecedented profile and attention given to climate change. Perhaps not the political theatre some would have wished for but, more importantly, clear and steady steps towards a more sustainable world. Through the G8 dialogue on Tuesday and the UN meeting in Montreal next month, we are starting to build the foundations of the genuinely global response we need.