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A new environment

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Why, after being so implacably opposed for so long to the Kyoto protocol, did the US perform a U-turn yesterday? To the complete surprise of even its closest allies, it announced a new pact with five Asian-Pacific states to cut greenhouse gases. Together the six states - Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea plus the US - account for over 40% of the six global warming gases that are already changing our climate. Australia's green party was in no doubt about the motive, describing the move as a self-protecting "coal pact" involving four of the world's largest coal producers. But within the US and Australia there was a separate business motive: clean energy technology is set to be a boom industry of the 21st century. Both states, being outside Kyoto, were in danger of losing out to the trading in this technology that the protocol promotes. Meanwhile China, while keen to maintain the phenomenal expansion of its economy, is also aware of the dangers of climate change with its internal deserts expanding and its prosperous eastern seaboard vulnerable to rising tides.

Whatever the motive, yesterday's pact is symbolically significant, even if in practice it changes little. Belatedly even the US president, whose bread has been buttered by the fossil fuel industry, has acknowledged that global warming is a problem. Thanks for this change are in part due to the 132 American city mayors and several state governors who voluntarily signed up to help meet the targets that Kyoto set for the US. This support was not confined to the Democratic party. Leading Republican figures, such as Senator John McCain and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, once and future stars of the Republican party, signalled their strong support for a ceiling on US carbon dioxide emissions. Yesterday's pact, alas, does not contain any legally binding obligations on any of the parties in respect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental lobby was right in its declarations that without clear and unequivocal caps on emissions, the pact is meaningless. The US is the world's biggest generator of greenhouse gases, accounting for 25% of the total. As Friends of the Earth noted: "It looks as though this will be business as usual for the United States."

Even so, Sir David King, the government's chief scientist, who believes climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism, gave the pact a cautious welcome as long as it moved on to cap emissions. The true test will be the forthcoming UN climate change convention in Montreal called to set post-2012 goals.

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