New Scientist
September 3, 2005


They said Kyoto would never work. They said capping emissions was not
the answer. And now the US and Australia are putting their money where
their mouth is as part of a six-nation pact dedicated to using
technology to halt climate change. Over the next 14 pages we assess
what the new partnership means for the world, identify the
technologies that could make the biggest difference, and visit energy-
hungry China for a glimpse of the future

By Ben Crystall

"It's quite clear the Kyoto protocol won't get the world to where it
wants to go," Australian environment minister Ian Campbell told
journalists on 27 July. "We have got to find something that works

The next day, following months of secret negotiations, officials from
the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India and China laid out their
alternative: an agreement to develop and share cleaner, more efficient
technologies that will, its backers say, meet climate concerns without
strangling economic growth.

According to the six countries involved, the Asia-Pacific Partnership
on Clean Development and Climate is an honest attempt to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions while providing "secure" energy supplies for
the nations involved. It will not undermine the Kyoto protocol but
complement it, by speeding up the spread of clean technologies in
developing nations.

There's little doubt that this is progress of sorts. Alone among
industrialised nations, the US and Australia have refused to ratify
the Kyoto protocol, arguing that doing so would cripple their
economies. The new pact is a recognition that something needs to be
done. The announcement was even accompanied by an unequivocal
statement from the White House that global warming is real and caused,
at least in part, by human activity.

But while advocates of Kyoto, including the United Nations, cautiously
welcomed the initiative, others were sceptical. European Community
spokeswoman Barbara Helferrich says that technology alone is unlikely
to reduce emissions. Environmental groups have gone further,
denouncing it as a deliberate attempt to undermine Kyoto - a
protectionist pact cooked up by coal burners keen to look busy while
actually doing very little.

Certainly the partnership has revealed few details of its strategy.
The nations involved simply pledge to cooperate on developing and
sharing clean-energy technologies. This includes anything and
everything, from improved energy efficiency to fusion. There are no
targets and no binding agreements.

Politics aside, what can the partnership hope to achieve? What is the
scale of the challenge it faces and what kinds of solutions are likely
to prove most promising? Can technology really save the planet?

The task faced by the six nations is daunting. Together, its members
eat up 45 per cent of the world's energy and belch out more than half
its carbon dioxide emissions . Carbon emissions from the US account
for 24 per cent of the global total, and are growing by 1.5 per cent
annually. China is on track to become the world's largest emitter by
2025, and by then India will not be far behind.

That's a very big ship to turn around. A study by the US Department of
Energy estimated that to meet Kyoto targets the US would need to
reduce its annual carbon emissions by about 540 million tonnes between
2008 and 2012, equivalent to shutting 90 coal-fired power stations
each year. The study suggested that meeting the target could cost the
economy 4.2 per cent of its GDP by 2010 - around $400 billion.

At the same time, however, the US is one of the leading developers of
technology to reduce carbon emissions. And despite fears that
greenhouse gas emissions can only be controlled by a revolutionary
leap in technology - fusion reactors, say - most experts have little
doubt that we already have the technology to stabilise atmospheric

In a paper published last year in Science (vol 305, p 968), Stephen
Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton University outlined a strategy
to stabilise emissions using 15 technologies that have already proved
themselves on an industrial scale. Their list includes better energy
efficiency in buildings, doubling the fuel efficiency of cars,
generating more electricity from wind turbines and adding 700
gigawatts of nuclear power generation. The authors calculate that by
implementing seven or more of these, atmospheric CO2 levels will
stabilise at today's levels by 2054. "It's an immense job," says
Socolow, "but it's tractable."

One technology will be critical, he suggests: carbon sequestration,
which researchers and governments are already taking very seriously .
Technologies for burning coal more cleanly are another key

If the new agreement smooths the spread of such technologies to
developing countries, that is likely to be a good thing, says Dennis
Anderson, a climate and energy expert at Imperial College London. And
in fact the US already has technology exchange agreements with all of
the partnership members, including a formal link with India to develop
nuclear power and a research agreement with China to develop fuel
cells and carbon sequestration.

This, however, raises a question: if the six countries are already
sharing clean energy technology, what can the new agreement add?

The answer could, paradoxically, lie with Kyoto itself. The protocol
includes a mechanism for transferring clean technology from one
country to another. But each project must be approved by UN

This is fine in theory, says Liz Bossley, a director of the London
Climate Change Services group, but in practice it is a bureaucratic
quagmire. "The Asia-Pacific Partnership says nuts to that," she says.

Instead, the new agreement appears to allow relatively straightforward
technology transfer between companies. And, says Bossley, if it turns
out that the partnership does help bring down barriers, it might
actually do what its supporters claim and complement Kyoto.

The pressure is on for the US and its partners to show the world that
the Asia-Pacific Partnership is more than just hot air. And with its
inaugural meeting scheduled for November - just days before the next
round of UN climate negotiations get under way in Montreal - the world
doesn't have long to wait.