A new global agreement to tackle climate change may be scuppered by cumbersome international bodies and a lack of political will, David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, fears.
He warned that politics was now lagging dangerously behind the science on global warming and feared that negotiations on a new deal might drag on so long that there would be a "gap" in 2012 when the Kyoto protocol's first stage runs out.
To ensure deeper cuts in carbon emissions from then, he said, agreement in principle would be needed by the end of next year. "If we have a gap in 2012, we would have a very serious problem. The whole system would be in tatters," he said.
Mr Miliband was speaking yesterday after returning from a United Nations conference in Kenya involving 189 countries, which ended without a major breakthrough but agreed to keep talking about a "son of Kyoto" treaty.
In an interview with The Independent, he said: "The political institutions and their speed are out of sync with the scientific needs of the issue. There was real progress on important issues in Nairobi but the gap between the science and the politics remains large, with industrialised and developing countries divided by priorities and divided among themselves."
The Environment Secretary admitted that politics had not yet "gone global" but national governments had to "find ways to cut through short-term self-interest and assert long-term mutual interests".
In Nairobi, he was frustrated that the negotiating bloc representing poor nations included countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which had very different interests to the poorest African states in the same group.
He did not believe the solution was to "rip up" institutions such as the UN but for political leaders to give greater urgency to climate change. He said the issue was too important to leave to environment ministers, and should involve prime ministers, foreign and finance ministers.
"We need to raise the political prize. We must be under no illusions. It will take a big acceleration. It will not be easy," he said.
Mr Miliband believes a major push will be needed in 2007 to ensure the 189 nations agree a negotioting mandate by the end of the year because detailed negotiations and then ratifying a new protocol could each take a further two years.
He pleaded with America, which opted out of the Kyoto agreement, to join the global effort and believed it would eventually bow to the inevitable. "It is obvious the problem cannot be solved without the Americans, and they have a huge amount to contribute and gain by coming in," he said. "I think it is a matter of when, not if, for all countries, but I simply don't know whether that means months, years or decades."
He added: "I can't think of a better legacy for George Bush than to spend his last two years forging a bipartisan commitment to put America at the heart of a global deal. It would make a huge difference to the world and it would be a huge opportuntity for America, with an energy infrastructure market worth an estimated $20 trillion."
Nairobi was the first international conference on climate change where the scientific evidence was not disputed - even by the US, where pressure on the Bush adminstration to act has been increased by the Democrats' victory in the midterm elections.
The Treasury-ordered review by Sir Nicholas Stern, which made the economic case for action, has had a big impact around the world. When he spoke at a fringe meeting in Nairobi with Mr Miliband, 450 people turned up. " I know they did not come to hear me," said the Environment Secretary. "Nick Stern is now an international rock star in the climate change world."
He said last month's Stern report unquestionably changed the nature of the debate. "The science has been clear for some time, but now the economics has a whole new dimension. Delay is more costly than action."
During his visit to Kenya, Mr Miliband saw at how climate change will affect the poorest nations hardest even though they account for a tiny proportion of carbon emissions. In the north of the country, he met nomadic tribespeople suffering from drought, and spent a morning in a slum in the middle of Nairobi where one million people live in 2 sq km.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited