The true significance of the climate-change pact signed this week by America, Australia and four Asian countries, is not so much that it bypasses the existing Kyoto protocol, as that it makes explicit the two completely contrasting approaches to tackling global warming
The received wisdom among most of the world community (and nearly all environmentalists) has been that the former, exemplified by the compulsory cuts in emissions mandated by the Kyoto treaty, is the only way forward. Now some of the world's leading nations have enshrined an entirely different path in a formal international agreement, claiming in essence that new technology can deliver the lower emissions the world must have if the climate is to remain stable without painful sacrifices having to be made by their industries and their citizens.
Can it? The immediate answer is, nobody knows. Certainly, it is unclear what level of emissions reductions the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, with its promotion of low-carbon technologies, can itself deliver. The new agreement is long on vision but short on detail. But what about the principle?
An increasing number of politicians are attracted to technological fixes because they are aware that getting democratic nations to tighten their belts will prove very difficult. If new technology can do the job instead, without forcing people to drive their cars less or pay a lot more for their central heating, hey presto, the problem is solved.
But once again, can it? Low-carbon technology will be essential in bringing about future emissions cuts from China, say, which is currently building new coal-fired power stations, but the key point about the new treaty is that the approach is entirely voluntary. There are no mandatory targets, so the amount of CO 2 reduction it provides for any given country will be simply what that country's politicians feel comfortable with - not what climate stability demands. And politicians, as we have seen, are governed by the exigencies of the next election - by the short term.
The future of the earth's climate has to be governed by long-term considerations. For all the political difficulty of the belt-tightening approach of Kyoto and its mandatory targets for cutting CO 2, it cannot just be abandoned in favour of letting countries do what they feel like. There will have to be targets set by science. America's new climate pact may be a useful addition to the fight against global warming - we will have to wait and see - but it is not the way forward for the world.Reuse content