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Kyoto and beyond

Kyoto alternative

What is this new Asia-Pacific Partnership all about?

Last Updated September 27, 2007

As climate change continues to heat up as the foremost political issue on world leaders' minds, Canada is about to partner with the planet's biggest polluters to tackle the problem.

On Sept. 24, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada would be formally joining the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, the U.S.-led group that will now consist of seven countries: the U.S., China, India, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Canada.

Notably absent from the APP are European countries, which are vigorous supporters of the UN-initiated Kyoto pact.

But many of them are also in Washington this week, along with Canada, to hear U.S. President George W. Bush's plans for dealing with climate change in the years ahead.

Canada's position is that it can be both a member of the APP and a strong supporter of Kyoto. And that by joining the partnership it can try to be a bridge between some of the world's biggest polluters, such as the U.S. and China, and Kyoto stalwarts like the European Union.

The APP goal is to cut each member's output of greenhouse gases by pursuing and sharing new technologies, including those for cleaner coal, solar and nuclear power.

The APP

This new partnership, which some are now calling the AP7, has a small membership, but its partners wield a heavy hand: these seven countries account for nearly half the world's greenhouse gas production. Any actions they take, therefore, could have a real global impact.

However, most environmental groups see the group as a PR initiative and are doubtful it will make any ripples at all to stem the tide of climate change.

Critics have dubbed it Kyoto-Lite and view it as a watered-down version of the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. pulled out of and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said is unattainable, at least in the near term.

While Kyoto assigned binding goals and targets to cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, and penalized countries that fail to meet commitments, the Asia-Pacific partnership doesn't formally oblige anyone to do anything. Each of the member countries sets its own emissions targets and timelines and faces no consequences for ignoring them. Participation is voluntary.

However, since the Asia-Pacific Partnership formed in 2005, the group has said it is not trying to replace Kyoto, but rather sees itself as a complement to it. Indeed most of the participants are still formally bound by the Kyoto protocol: only Australia and the U.S. have not signed it.

Kyoto requirements

Under Kyoto, Canada is required to cut greenhouse gas emissions by six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012, or to 563 megatonnes a year. At last count, the country was roughly 30 per cent over that level and the Harper government has said Canada had no chance of meeting its targets under the Kyoto Protocol, and that to try would bring on huge economic problems.

Instead, the Conservative government rolled out a new Clean Air Act, which has targets that are "intensity-based", meaning the targets would be based on the intensity of emissions per unit, and not economic output.

This has become a huge point of political debate among the federal parties, most of whom favour hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions. An intensity target allows overall emissions to grow as long as the greenhouse gas producer is using energy more efficiently.

Harper has said that intensity targets, instead of hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions, are a better way to engage major polluters such as the U.S. and China.

In order for climate change policies to be effective, Harper argues, the big players must be on board. Having a hard cap, he maintains, deters countries projecting economic growth and population growth from signing on.

The 'coal pact'?

However environmentalists, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, say the Asia-Pacific Partnership undermines any U.N. efforts to combat climate change by creating a separate organization that excludes most of the world's countries.

Some critics say the APP is more about selling coal, the world's cheapest, most abundant, yet most polluting source of energy. In fact, the Asia-Pacific Partnership's other nickname is "the coal pact."

China is the world's biggest coal user, relying on it to power its generating plants and steel mills. Coal provides electricity and is needed for the coking process. Furthermore, the four Asian member countries of the AP6 account for more than half the planet's steel production. Australia, which initially conceptualized the AP6, and the U.S. are reportedly looking to expand into the Asian and Indian Markets.

With Australia's biggest competitor in the Asian steel market being Alberta's very own Fording Coal, it's easy to see why Harper would be interested in joining the AP6.

As well, the APP is a prime forum to showcase that Alberta is a hotbed for innovation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and burning "clean coal."

Clean coal refers to a process in which coal is turned into a synthetic natural gas that captures pollutants before they're released into the atmosphere. And because of it, Alberta's Genesee 3 power plant is one of the cleanest in the world. It could help Ontario with its electricity struggles, but it's not without its shortfalls, such as the conundrum of what to do with the greenhouse gas when it's been captured.

But still, "clean coal" is a technology that would be attractive to Canada's soon-to-be partners.

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