Asia Pacific Partnership Summit Fails to Fight Global Warming

World's biggest polluters seek to undermine Kyoto Protocol by agreeing only to seek to slow the rate at which emissions are increasing.

Published: 17-Jan-2006

Global efforts to cut greenhouse gases are in disarray after an inaugural summit of major Asia Pacific polluters adopted a toothless climate change plan which even its own experts concede will fail to combat global warming.

The Asia Pacific Partnership (APP) on Clean Development and Climate opened its inaugural meeting in Sydney last week with a sobering assessment that greenhouse gas emissions will triple by 2050.

The APP is a United States and Australian-led initiative to formulate a counter-strategy to the Kyoto protocol on global warming. The U.S., the world's single largest polluter, and Australia, the world's largest per capita polluter, are the only industrial nations that have refused to adopt Kyoto's binding emissions reduction targets. The partnership brings the U.S. and Australia together with India, China, Japan and South Korea, nations collectively responsible for half the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

In Sydney, the APP nations failed to commit to cutting pollution, agreeing only to seek to slow the rate at which emissions are increasing. The APP strategy relies heavily on new technology, such as pumping carbon emissions underground, rather than lifestyle sacrifices like smaller cars and homes and changes to industry. Compliance is voluntary and the APP will rely on the goodwill of industry, not the big stick of governments.

The U.S. Energy Secretary, Samuel Bodman, made the quaint but hardly persuasive assertion that "statesman-like" industry chiefs could be trusted because "The people who run the private sector, they too have children, they too have grandchildren and they would like things dealt with effectively."

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) gave delegates the bad news that based on present trends the world's greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase dramatically. What's more alarming is ABARE's view that even if all the aims of the APP are achieved, global emissions will more than double over the same time frame. As the Australian Conservation Foundation President, Professor Ian Lowe, said recently, "The science is very clear. We need to reduce global greenhouse pollution by about 60 per cent, ideally by 2050."

"The bottom line to emerge from the climate conference is this; at best, things will get worse. The gathering was content to settle for a world that is warmer, more polluted and as profligate as ever in its use of fossil fuels. The focus was more on preserving profits than the planet," the Sydney Morning Herald commented in an editorial.

The APP's laissez-faire, technology-led strategy threatens the Kyoto protocol because its undermines the Kyoto's policy carrots and sticks as well as new market innovations, like a carbon-trading market that allows big polluters to buy emissions credits by sponsoring developments such as forests or wind farms elsewhere. It also raises serious questions about the APP's four Asian members. China, India, Japan and Korea are all signatories to Kyoto. India and China -- which, with Brazil, will account for much of the doubling of global energy demand by 2030 -- do not face emission constraints in the current, first phase of Kyoto. Any action on greenhouse gases will fail spectacularly without significant action by the world's biggest economy, the U.S., and the two emerging giants of China and India.

The Sydney conference was set against a backdrop of extreme weather in Australia and Japan. Australia recorded temperatures in the mid-40s centigrade on New Year's Day and suffered serious bushfires that cut off the Sydney-Brisbane highway. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology also announced that 2005 had been Australia's hottest on record, and temperatures had risen by more than one degree Celcius on average, the climate equivalent of moving 100 kilometers northward towards the tropics. On the other side of the equator, Japan experienced massive snowstorms and extreme lows in temperature.

Australia is major coal exporter to Asia's booming economies. Australia also has the world's largest reserves of uranium. Nuclear power is increasingly being re-packaged as a "green solution" to climate change because it is carbon-emissions free. Canberra has recently begun negotiating with China over uranium sales, and U.S. negotiations with Delhi over its nuclear weapons program are likely to clear the way for the expansion of nuclear power generation in India. Yet there has little debate over the safeguards, and nuclear risks are being swept under the carpet in favor of a quick fix.

Many commentators concluded the APP summit ended in nothing more than "hot air". The AU$445 million (U.S.$336 million) the U.S. and Australia pledged to clean energy projects over five years is only a fraction of the AU$14 billion ($10.5 billion) being spent over the same period to upgrade transmission for coal-fired power stations in Australia alone. The impression that the APP is merely a fig leaf for inaction is hard to avoid. But, the trouble both nations went to in staging the meeting does mean they are feeling the pressure over their rejection of Kyoto and their poor record on environmental issues. That's at least a small step forward.

Louise Williams is a senior Australian journalist with considerable experience in the Asia-Pacific region and international affairs. She spent more than a decade as a foreign correspondent based in Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta, a period of extraordinary economic, political and social change.

She has worked as Asian Editor and Foreign Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has written or contributed to a number of books on regional issues. She is currently a columnist and Leader writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, where she has responsibility for editorial comment on a wide range of international and domestic issues.

Williams has won various awards throughout her career, including the Walkley Award and the John S. Knight Fellowship for Journalism at Stanford University, and speaks regularly at conferences and forums. Although, currently Sydney-based, she travels regularly.

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