LONDON Britain on Tuesday became the first country to propose legislation setting binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions as it stepped up its campaign for a new global warming pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
In its draft Climate Change Bill, the government said carbon dioxide emissions had to be cut by at least 60 percent by 2050, set out five-year carbon budgets to reach the target and created an independent monitoring committee to check annual progress.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair put climate change at the top of the international agenda when Britain was head of the Group of Eight industrialized nations in 2005 and it could now become the first nation to limit emissions by statute.
"This bill is an international landmark," Environment Minister David Miliband told a news conference. "It is the first time any country has set itself legally binding carbon targets. It is an environmental contract for future generations."
The draft bill also sets a legally binding interim target for carbon cuts of 26 to 32 percent by 2020.
Miliband said failure to meet targets could land governments in court. "Governments that fail to meet the stipulations of the bill will be subject to judicial review. It will be for the courts to decide what sanctions to apply," he said.
Environmentalists welcomed the carbon cut budgets, which require any overshoot in a given year to be recouped later.
The draft bill will go to three months of public and parliamentary consultation before becoming law next year, but green campaigners want to raise the 2050 target to 80 percent and set annual 3 percent cut targets to ensure compliance.
The government rejects annual targets as being too rigid to make allowances for climate variations from year to year.
Andrew Pendleton, senior climate policy officer at Christian Aid, praised the bill but said: "If the final legislation is not significantly stronger, the process would represent a massive lost opportunity. It is the first step on a long journey."
Edward Hanna, senior lecturer in climate change at the University of Sheffield, was also unimpressed: "(It) doesn't go far enough fast enough to confidently combat the significant threats posed by human-induced global warming. I fear that as we are closing the stable door, the horse has already bolted."
The Kyoto Protocol is a global pact on tackling carbon gas emissions from burning fossil fuels for power and transport that scientists say will boost average temperatures by between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius this century. It runs out in 2012.
LEADING THE CHARGE
Britain and Germany are leading the charge to extend Kyoto and expand its scope to bring in the United States, which rejected it in 2001, and boom economies such as China and India, which -- although signatories -- are not bound by it.
The British draft bill comes after European Union leaders agreed last week to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the British bill.
"The path Britain is following is the right one. It is important to create the legal and economic conditions for climate protection," Merkel told the Sueddeutsche newspaper.
European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told the paper Britain's plans were a "courageous step." "Britain is giving other EU members a signal."
The government said people needed to reduce carbon footprints and become energy producers as well as consumers.
Finance minister Gordon Brown said on Monday Britain would phase out high-energy light bulbs, make it easier for people to insulate their homes and try to persuade the EU to ban wasteful electrical devices such as standby switches.
The Labour government, trailing in opinion polls to the opposition Conservatives, is wary of further boosting taxes on fuel and air travel -- measures that could be unpopular in a nation in love with cars and cheap foreign holidays.
Each party is vying for the mantle of Britain's greenest, with environmental issues likely to be a battleground at the next election, expected in 2009.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft)