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Business deal or bright idea?

To insiders, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate is a real world, mature-person's solution to climate change.

No economic pain, no mandatory targets, no international commitments and no need for open, accountable negotiations.

No place for the fetid unwashed of the environmental movement; keep it in the family of power-suited industrial and political brokers, the few who can really get things done.

The electronic juice will keep flowing, the giant developing economies of Asia will keep growing, and no government will have to do anything it doesn't want to do.

To other observers, it's an empty vessel; a fig-leaf to cover the embarrassment of George Bush and John Howard, the only western leaders to have reneged on commitments their predecessors made at the UN Kyoto conference in 1997.

In this thesis, the Partnership will deliver nothing of benefit to the climate, because technology alone cannot bring the huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, according to consensus climate science, are needed.

The case for the defence is mounted by Australian Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane.

"The reality is new technology will deliver three times the savings in greenhouse gas as the Kyoto Protocol will," he said in the run-up to the meeting here.

"Things like geosequestration, solar energy, better utilisation of the newer technologies are going to see more efficient electricity production and more efficient electricity consumption."

The Australian position is that Kyoto will not deliver meaningful cuts in carbon emissions; their evidence is that many fully paid-up Kyoto nations look set to miss their targets by some margin.

Emissions to rise

However, a report released at the meeting by the Australian government's Bureau of Agricultural and Research Economics (Abare) dealt something of a blow to the concept of a voluntary, technology-driven solution to climate change.

Compiled for the Partnership, and explicitly supportive of it, the report plots various scenarios for the future.

Without the Partnership, it declares, "global greenhouse gas emissions are projected to almost triple between 2001 and 2050".

Rolling out technologies for energy efficiency and renewables across the six Partnership nations would, it predicts, reduce the 2050 total by about 11%.

Introducing carbon capture and storage technology for coal and gas-fired power stations as well increases that figure to 17%; extending these benefits to the rest of the world puts it up to 23%.

If Abare's projections are correct, then, even the most optimistic scenario would see a doubling of global emissions by 2050.

Contrast that with the predictions of climate scientists, and it is easy to see why the Partnership has brought widespread dismay to many concerned observers.

No definitive picture exists of precisely what constitutes "dangerous" climate change; EU policy, with some support from the scientific community, is to avoid a rise of 2C in the average global temperature.

Follow that goal through the maths and it is possible to conclude that within 15 years, emissions should have peaked and be on their way down.

In the run-up to the meeting Australia's environment minister Ian Campbell said: "The consensus of scientists around the world is that we need 50 to 60% lower emissions this century."

It is difficult to see Abare's report as anything other than a frank admission that the Asia-Pacific Partnership will not bring this about.

All eyes on coal

In principle all technology options are on the table here - nuclear power, renewables, energy efficiency, capture and use of methane, and clever ideas based on natural gas.

In practice, coal is the centre of attention.

The six-nation grouping contains four of the world's top five coal producers; all depend heavily on the fuel for their domestic energy.

Researchers in Australia as elsewhere in the world are working on "clean" technologies that can reduce substantially carbon dioxide emissions from this most polluting of fuels.

"There are several approaches to removing CO2 from the combustion of coal," says Louis Wibberley, manager of energy technology and modelling at the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

"Post-combustion capture route is where you strip the CO2 from the flue gas and then compress it to be stored underground," he told me.

"That process effectively consumes 20 or 25% of the power station's output; or [to put it another way] it consumes energy so the output is reduced by about 20 or 25%.

"That also gives you a multiplier effect on the cost; and with current technology you will approximately double the cost of electricity."

Dr Wibberley's group and others are working to raise the efficiency and bring down the cost.

Even so, capturing carbon is always going to prove more expensive than not capturing it.

The European Union is attempting to square this circle with its Emissions Trading Scheme, whereby companies can register a financial "win" by installing clean technologies.

No such driver exists for the Asia-Pacific grouping, which is one reason for the scepticism.

"You can invest all you want in coming up with all kinds of wonderful new technologies," says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington DC.

"But unless China, India, or any other country commits to substantial reductions in its nation's emissions, why should its electricity sector or other polluting sectors invest in them? There's no reason."

Race against time

Timescale is another factor.

"It's probably a decade before most of the technologies are commercially viable," says the CSIRO's chief of energy technology David Brockway.

Nevertheless, he backs the concept of trying to develop technologies which can be rolled out across Asia as its thirst for energy soars.

"We've got to bear in mind that the big growth in greenhouse gas emissions in the future will in fact not come from the developed world, it'll come from the developing world - China, India, Thailand, Indonesia - all of whom have aspirations to [a western] standard of living," he told me.

"They will need to use a lot of energy to achieve that standard of living. So if we can make those technologies available over the next decade or so, as these countries install new technologies, we can have an enormous impact on the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions."

But carbon capture technologies don't cut greenhouse gas emissions completely; 10% or more can still be emitted.

On the eve of this meeting the Transition Institute, an energy think-tank, concluded that this issue alone means carbon capture and storage cannot solve the greenhouse issue.

Asia's thirst for energy is growing so fast, it concluded, that if clean coal became the dominant technology, Asian emissions would rise by about 70% between now and 2050, simply because there will be so many power stations from which 10% or so can escape.

Taking care of business

Sceptical observers of the Asia-Pacific Partnership have other reservations.

It is basically a business deal, they maintain, aimed at providing new opportunities for companies big and rich enough to get close to the reins of political power.

It is a public relations exercise to foster feelings that the US and Australia, the Kyoto naysayers, are doing something.

It will, critics allege, seduce developing nations away from the United Nations climate negotiations with its frilly promises of jam today and forever.

But the big question is the one posed by Philip Clapp; without targets and without economic incentives, why would anyone invest in clean technologies when they cost more?

US energy secretary Samuel Bodman gave one answer at the conference.

"I believe that the people who run the private sector, who run these companies; they too have children, they too have grandchildren, they too live and breathe in the world, and they would like things dealt with effectively.

"It's really going to be the private sector, the companies... that are ultimately going to be the solvers of this problem."

In this thesis, the energy giants of today's multinational economy will invest willingly to safeguard the world's climate future.

If the Abare projections are correct, they are clearly not willing enough, or not powerful enough, to bring reductions in global emissions of greenhouse gases.

That is why other bodies such as the European Commission are standing by the approach of binding, internationally-agreed targets as exemplified by the Kyoto Protocol.

The challenge this bloc faces is that as the existence of the Asia-Pacific Partnership demonstrates, the really big emitters of the present and future do not, apparently, see the need.

Editorial Notes: Good analysis as far as it goes. What is left out is consideration of the disruptions to be caused by Peak Oil. Also, why is it that conservation and efficiency are never mentioned in the list of solutions? It's as if cultural taboos prevent us from seeing answers that are right in front of us. -BA

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