KOBE, Japan - The world is losing momentum in the battle against global warming, the United Nations climate chief warned Saturday, urging environmental ministers from wealthy countries to revive the effort by setting clear targets for reducing greenhouse gases.

The ministers gathered in the western Japanese city of Kobe for a three-day meeting as evidence mounted that rising world temperatures have been taking a toll on the earth at a faster rate than previously forecast.

The officials from the Group of Eight countries, joined by representatives from other countries including China and other organizations, were to lay the foundations for the upcoming G8 summit in northern Japan in July.

UN climate chief Yvo de Boer told The Associated Press on the sidelines that he was concerned about stalling momentum behind international talks to forge a global warming pact by December 2009 to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. Its first phase ends in 2012.

"Much of the enthusiasm and ambition that we saw in Bali with the launch of negotiations doesn't seem to be present," he said, referring to a meeting on the Indonesian resort island in December, when some 190 countries decided on a timetable for talks on the new climate pact.

De Boer cited a recently announced U.S. climate plan that would allow an increase in emissions, Canada's indication that it will not meet its obligations under the Kyoto agreement, and European industry's skepticism about the EU goal of cutting emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

To rejuvenate the talks, G8 countries - Canada, Japan, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the United States - need to decide on midterm targets for reducing carbon emissions by 2020, make a clearer commitment to helping poorer nations deal with climate change, and form a dialogue with top developing countries such as China to run parallel with the UN-led talks, he said.

"Certainly my expectation is that ... the G8 leaders will now really take things to the next level, and I think need to take it to the next level, with December 2009 being just around the corner," de Boer said.

A senior Canadian government source said Canada believes it is important that all major emitting countries need to share responsibility for cutting greenhouse gases.

"That's why we need countries like China, India and the United States to join us in the fight against climate change," the source said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press.

On Saturday the ministers heard from environmentalists and business leaders before moving behind closed doors.

Environmentalists urged quick action to stem the effects of the rise in world temperatures, which scientists say threaten to drive species to extinction, worsen floods and droughts, and thwart economic development.

The rapid melting of ice in the Arctic, increasing crop damage and other effects show the multiplying effects or higher temperatures, said Bill Hare, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Summer sea ice in the Arctic, for instance, shrank to a record low last year to nearly 40 per cent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.

Hare warned that rising oil prices could speed that even further. Light, sweet crude for July delivery settled at $132.19 a barrel Friday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The increase encourages the use of cheaper coal - a much dirtier fuel.

"The recent developments in the energy sector, particularly high oil prices and coal intensive development ... are pointing toward the risk of higher emissions," Hare told the ministers.

The initial meetings Saturday illustrated the continuing divisions among nations over how to attack climate change.

The UN process has moved slowly, with countries clashing over how ambitious the world should be in stemming the rising in world temperatures, how reduction targets should be set, and how much rapidly developing countries such as China should be called on to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.

Hilary Benn, British environmental chief, argued that the world had no choice but to act against climate change now that scientists have shown that the earth can only absorb a limited amount of greenhouse gases before temperatures rise too high.

"The fundamental problem we have is a political one," he said. "How do we divide up between all the nations of the earth in a fair manner the ability to emit that limited quantity of emissions so that we avoid dangerous climate change?"

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