Britain Shifting Toward US View of Climate Change

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Amid continuing signs of a shift in Prime Minister Tony Blair's views on the Kyoto Protocol, the British government is warning against too much "enthusiasm" in developing new targets and timetables for reducing carbon emissions.

Instead, it appears to be lgiving more attention to developing and sharing "clean" technology to combat climate change while not harming economic growth -- echoing the approach of a new Asia-Pacific climate partnership spearheaded by the U.S. and Australia.

The Kyoto Protocol, which came into force last February, obliges industrialized countries to reduce by specified amounts emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants known as "greenhouse gases," which are blamed for climate change.

Angering Kyoto proponents, Washington and Canberra rejected the accord, arguing that meeting the targets would harm their economies. They also pointed out that the pact exempts China and India from reducing emissions, even though those two countries are among the world's biggest polluters due to their fast-growing economies.

Britain this week hosted a meeting of environmental ministers from the G-8 industrialized nations and several others, including China, India, Mexico and Australia.

Blair told the gathering that the Kyoto Protocol was important but he stressed the need for realistic policies.

"The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge," he said. "But all economies know that the only sensible, long-term way to develop is to do it on a sustainable basis."

Blair's office said solutions would come in part through the private sector in developing the technology and science.

"The conference agreed to work together on cleaner, low carbon technologies and looked ahead to further discussions later this month in Montreal," the statement said, referring to the forthcoming U.N. climate change conference.

Many environmentalists are hoping the conference in Canada will set new global emission reduction targets beyond 2012, when the first phase of Kyoto ends.

But at a press conference in London, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett cautioned against rushing to set new targets.

"I understand and sympathize with those who want to write the treaty now," she said, but added that "their enthusiasm to explain and devise precise formulas is more likely to deter people than engage them seriously in such discussions."

Early this week, a London newspaper published an op-ed by Blair in which he appeared to downplay the impact of Kyoto, while stressing the need to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while not jeopardizing growth.

"While the Kyoto Protocol takes us in the right direction, it is not enough," the prime minister said.

"Even if the U.S. 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."

Blair called for major developed and emerging nations to work on the problem, "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."

This approach is in line with what the Asia-Pacific partnership on clean development and climate seeks to achieve.

The initiative, announced last July, brings together the U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea - countries which together account for almost 50 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Described by the Australian government as taking the process "beyond Kyoto," the partnership drew strong criticism from green activists and others.

The European Union has been Kyoto's strongest supporter, and Blair has made climate change one of two major policy priorities during Britain's current six-month E.U. presidency.

As such, his shift is seen as significant.

"Blair leads a country that is a key signatory of Kyoto, yet he has left no doubt that the Kyoto Protocol simply will not deliver the reductions in greenhouse gases that are needed to curb the threat of climate change," Australian environment minister Ian Campbell said in an article published Wednesday.

"His comments mirror what Australia has said all along: that is, to have a real impact on climate change, it is imperative to have co-operation from all countries and all greenhouse emitters."

Explaining why he believes "Kyoto is not the answer," Campbell pointed out that a ton of greenhouse gas emissions produced by an Australian plant has the same environmental impact as a ton emitted by a factory in China.

Even if Australia were to shut down completely, "turning off every school, hospital, car and truck," the savings in emissions would be replicated by China's rapidly-growing economy in just 11 months, he said.

The Montreal conference, beginning November 28, will bring together officials from 150 countries.

The Asia-Pacific partnership is due to hold its first meeting of foreign, energy and environment ministers in Australia early in the new year, after a meeting originally planned for this month was postponed.

Some environmentalists considered it significant that the Asia-Pacific meeting was being delayed until after the Montreal conference, although a spokeswoman for the Australian government said that "coordinating ministerial-level schedules across six countries is obviously a major logistical exercise."

See earlier story:
US, Partners Unveil New Climate Change Plan (Jul. 28, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow