The Ominous New Pact

When the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in February 2005, every nation in the world except the US, Australia, Monaco, and Liechtenstein had ratified the treaty. Developing countries, including China and India, are not required to reduce emissions during the first phase of the treaty (2005–2011), and the supposedly unfair economic advantage this would give the developing world was cited by the US as a principal reason that it would not ratify the protocol. As evidence of climate change has grown, pressure has been building on all of these countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, and on July 28, 2005, the political leaders of the US, Australia, China, India, South Korea, and Japan—the AP6—announced a new agreement, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, designed to show their concern. The AP6 countries make up around half of the world’s population and account for around 40 percent of its CO2 emissions.

Except for a one-page statement of the group’s “vision,” very little information about the AP6 has been forthcoming. The range of possibilities cited in that statement is exceedingly broad. It mentions existing technologies for producing cleaner coal that will, ironically, exacerbate climate change; it also mentions far-off possibilities for developing a hydrogen economy and nuclear fusion. Understandably there has been much speculation about the intent of the pact. Will it eventually lead to real action on climate change, or will it become a rival to Kyoto that would weaken the global response to the climate crisis? Until the inaugural meeting of the AP6 in Sydney on January 11 and 12 of this year there was no way of telling, but there were hints of what was to come in the recent energy plans of the AP6 countries.

The AP6 nations are either heavily dependent on coal for generating electric power throughout their economies, or they have industries like aluminum smelting that require cheap power for processing raw materials. Australia has both, and is also the world’s largest coal exporter. Good-quality black coal is at least 92 percent carbon. When it is burned, the carbon atoms combine with two heavier oxygen atoms. Therefore, when a single ton of high-grade coal is burned, 3.7 tons of CO2 emerge from the power plant’s smokestack. The vast stream of waste that results is estimated to amount to nine billion tons each year—around 38 percent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The meeting did not get off to a good start. At the last moment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided not to come, citing Ariel Sharon’s illness; in her place Samuel Bodman, secretary of energy, headed the US delegation. Almost all the other delegates were middle-level bureaucrats, politicians, scientists working with the coal industry, and representatives of large polluting industries such as coal and aluminum smelting. The meeting was chaired by Australia’s minister for industry, Ian Macfarlane, who as late as 2005 was still publicly denying the reality …

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Letters

Capturing Carbon November 16, 2006