Australia expects other countries to join a six-nation Asia-Pacific regional initiative announced in Laos this week to cut the greenhouse gas emissions from factories, homes and cars that are changing our climate.
And why not? Signatories hold out the promise that the pact has no economic downside and that a fresh reliance on the alchemy of modern technology will deliver more power while reducing carbon monoxide and other damaging emissions.
Too good to be true? Australian Conservation Council executive director Don Henry thinks so. Technology transfers are useful, he says, but voluntary programs like the one just agreed by Australia, the US, India, China, Japan and South Korea are not going to cut greenhouse pollution by the required 60 percent by 2050.
"The new pact risks being a lot of hot air," Henry said of the grandly titled Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate unveiled in Vientiane on Thursday.
"It needs to be complemented by strong international targets that require greenhouse pollution to be cut -- like the Kyoto Protocol," he said.
The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated among 140 countries in 1997 and which took effect in February, promises gain from pain: legally binding requirements on 35 rich countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Developing countries would join the tough-love rubric thereafter.
Australia and the US are the only two rich countries holding out against accepting Kyoto targets. They argue the pact is unfair because energy-gobbling developing countries like China, India and Brazil aren't sharing the pain. They also argue that their economies would be pummeled by the higher energy prices that dipping under the Kyoto targets would entail.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard is upbeat about what he tellingly calls a "vision statement" that carries with it no targets, cash demands or penalties for non-compliance.
"The vision statement that's been released in Vientiane tackles head-on the need for greater emphasis on new and more effective technologies to reduce the greenhouse emissions from the use of fossil fuels. The fairness and effectiveness of this proposal will be superior to the Kyoto Protocol," Howard said in Canberra.
The world will have to wait until the six partners get together in Adelaide in November to flesh out their "fresh new development" for curbing climate change.
Howard said the focus of the meeting in the South Australian state capital would be on finding ways to cut the environmental cost of relying on coal for power generation rather than exploiting solar power and other whiz-bang alternatives to fossil fuels.
"The greater emphasis is on finding ways of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions flowing from the exploitation of traditional energy sources," the prime minister said.
This is in keeping with Howard's statement two years ago that coal would be the staple of power generation in Australia for as long as pits were workable. The coal industry employs 120,000 Australians, backs the generation of 80 percent of the country's electricity, and its exports bring in A$24 billion (US$16 billion) a year.
"The reality is that the older fuels, of which we have large supplies, are going to contribute the bulk of our energy needs. The energy advantage provided by our resources is something that Australia must not throw away," Howard declared last year.
The six partners in what some have called the "post-Kyoto" initiative include four of the world's biggest coal miners -- Australia, China, the US and India -- and the ambition of the new grouping is to install technologies around the region that will reduce the polluting power of coal.
It is this that has led some to scoff at what was proposed in Vientiane.
Said Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens in Australia's parliament: "This is all about taxpayers' money being diverted from developing clean renewable technologies to try to make burning coal less dirty."
Howard and his ministers take another tack. They argue that they have done the world a huge service by engaging China and India in efforts to stem climate change. Kyoto, they say, failed in that it didn't demand effort from rich and poor alike.
"The real answer to global emission reduction is engaging China and India and the big emitters that don't have big commitments under Kyoto," Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell said.
He trumpeted the new initiative, which has managed to rope in the two biggest developing-country emitters, as a triumph in a global effort at "finding ways to produce the technology that can see energy use go up but emissions go down."
Howard has been careful not to traduce the 140 countries, including India, China, Japan and South Korea, that embraced the Kyoto process.
Kyoto stop-outs Australia and the US have been labelled global vandals for not picking up their share of the burden in cutting emissions. Canberra will be hoping that through the new initiative it will be seen as doing something positive to tackle the issue of climate change.
The meeting in Adelaide later this year will be crucial in testing the commitment of the new partners. What analysts will be looking for is a raft of cash commitments to develop technologies for filtering emissions and burying the carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power stations. These technologies are so far no more than experimental.
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