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DateLine Sunday, 30 September 2007

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Britain challenges US to cut greenhouse gases

Britain pointedly called on the United States to join other rich nations making binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as dozens of world leaders held a summit on the danger of catastrophic climate change.

Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, told the meeting at United Nations headquarters that "the greatest challenge we have ever faced as human beings" required action from every developed nation.

"That means all of us, including the largest economy in the world, the United States, taking on binding reduction targets," he said. "It is inconceivable that dangerous climate change can be avoided without this happening."

Mr Benn's decision to single out the US during a visit to New York will be regarded in Washington as particularly provocative.

President Bush skipped most of the UN meeting and was planning to attend only a working dinner last night. He has called his own two-day meeting of 15 major economies in Washington later in the week.

Although he has abandoned his previous scepticism about man-made climate change and promises to negotiate a "long-term global goal" for cutting emissions, Mr Bush still envisages countries entering framework agreements voluntarily.

"It's our philosophy that each nation has the sovereign capacity to decide for itself what its own portfolio of policies should be," said James Connaughton, the President's chief environmental adviser.

The White House remains hostile to international measures such as a cap-and-trade system on emissions, which might increase electricity bills for ordinary Americans, with Mr Connaughton questioning whether a "woman on fixed income in Ohio should pay for carbon dioxide reductions in the oil sector".

European diplomatic sources are complaining privately that Mr Bush's agenda is too limited and threatens to undermine their attempt for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which was never ratified by the US. Some say that they are already looking "beyond Bush" towards the 2008 presidential elections.

Elizabeth Bast, spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, said: "The US must join the rest of the world in tackling climate change within the United Nations framework, instead of promoting purely voluntary measures that will not achieve necessary emissions reductions."

The UN has tried to smooth over the potential conflict with Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, accepting an invitation to attend the Washington meeting. Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, represented the Bush Administration in the main session of the UN summit. But Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Governor, upstaged her with his own appearance.

"It is time we came together in a new international agreement that can be embraced by rich and poor nations alike," he said. "California is moving the United States beyond debate and doubt to action." Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, claimed there was now "universal recognition" that the UN provided the right forum for negotiating global action. "The message is simple: we know enough to act; if we do not act now, the impact of climate change will be devastating."

Mr Benn said that a scheduled UN conference on climate change in Bali in December should start negotiations leading to an agreement by the end of 2009 on greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

"The ultimate objective of the UN convention on climate change requires at least a halving of global emissions by the middle of this century," he said.

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