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Now how do we save the Earth?

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

LONDON, England (CNN) -- So is it the end of the planet?

Back in November 2000, environmentalists castigated world leaders who came away from a conference in The Hague without agreeing measures to curb carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to halt global warming.

If they could not manage global co-operation when the world was in danger, they argued, what hope was there for the Earth?

There were bitter recriminations between the participants, with UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott clashing with French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, a leading figure in her country's Green Party.

Hopes for a breakthrough at The Hague had centered on settling arguments between the United States -- with 4 percent of the world's population, it is responsible for 25 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions -- and the Europeans.

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European politicians had pinned their hopes on a deal involving so-called "carbon sinks," allowing the U.S. to set some of its reduced emissions target against the forests that absorb carbon dioxide.

Prescott, an architect of the original 1997 deal in Kyoto, Japan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, believed he had brokered a deal between the U.S. and Europe. When it foundered he blamed Voynet, saying: "She got cold feet. She was exhausted and tired and could not understand the detail."

Voynet, who was backed by Denmark, Sweden, Germany and others in rejecting the deal, said, "Britain had conceded too much to America. It was not acceptable."

In the event it all proved academic. George W. Bush's arrival in the White House in January 2001 was followed by a brusque refusal to back the Kyoto Protocol, despite entreaties from European leaders that it was a key issue they must discuss.

America's new president said the Kyoto Protocol, which many regard as meaningless unless the U.S. signs up to it, was "fatally flawed" and against the economic interests of his country. He objected to the fact that it did not include China or developing countries and even questioned the science behind it.

Stung by the outcry that followed the way he had rejected the Kyoto treaty, Mr. Bush sought to mollify his critics before his trip to Europe in June. He pledged billions of dollars for further research into climate change and agreed that greenhouse gas emissions needed to be curbed.

But European Union leaders were not impressed, saying that the time for research was past and that it was time for action, not words. When Bush met them at their summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, they simply "agreed to differ" on the environment.

After he left, the 15 EU countries announced they would all ratify the Kyoto Protocol this year and, furthermore, would send a high-level team to countries like Japan, Canada and Australia to persuade them to do the same.

In Bonn, Germany, from July 16-27, they will discuss other moves that might help to counter global warming.

There remains a cultural divide on the issue between America, with its tradition of cheap petrol and gas-guzzling cars, and an ever-more-environmentally conscious EU.

European politicians are frustrated that any efforts they may make will be of only limited value without significant co-operation from the U.S. as such a conspicuous energy user.

Japan has offered to act as an arbiter between Europe and the U.S., saying the U.S. must take a lead in reducing greenhouse gases while trying to persuade the EU to soften its stance on the Kyoto Protocol so as to bring the U.S. back into the fold.

Japanese Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi has warned that it will be impossible to persuade developing countries to reduce their CO2 emissions if the U.S. fails to do so. She says the Kyoto Protocol is not set in stone but offers some room for manoeuvre.

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