The inaugural two-day summit of what many see as an American-led alternative to the Kyoto climate treaty convenes Wednesday in Sydney.
Formed this past July, the new bloc brings together the US, China, India, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. These six nations are responsible for more than 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, which many scientists say cause global warming.
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which sets emissions targets for nations, the new Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate aims to reduce emissions voluntarily through the transfer of emerging technologies - including "clean coal," burial of carbon dioxide, and next-generation nuclear power - from industrialized nations to the developing world.
The pact's advocates argue it is a more realistic approach than Kyoto, and commits many of the major nations not yet bound by Kyoto quotas to at least the principle of reducing emissions. The effectiveness of this effort, however, may ride on whether the high-tech systems can be developed fast enough and made commercially enticing for businesses not otherwise compelled to adopt greener methods.
Don Henry, the executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation in Melbourne, says that a pact based on voluntary action has no teeth. "We have realized after 50 years of tackling the pollution problem that to be [effective] we need laws, not just voluntary agreements."
Experts say that most technology transfers under consideration are not yet commercially viable, and will require millions of dollars in subsidies or investment. Some are still in the research phase. This first meeting will be an attempt by all the six countries to come up with plans and ideas that can be put in motion.
During the meeting, Australia is expected to announce a $75 million contribution to a fund to help develop clean technology in China and India.
"While Kyoto puddles on nicely, the real reductions will come from technology," Australia's Minister for Industry, Ian Macfarlane, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "This is not a diplomatic love-in. It's a hard-edged business plan with targets and reporting duties."
But Mr. Macfarlane indicated that no specific timetable would be used under the new plan.
Ian Campbell, Australia's environmental minister, told reporters in Perth recently that, "We're going to have a 40 percent increase in emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, while the world needs a 50 percent reduction. We've got to find something that works better."
In that search for something better, a number of technologies are likely to be pushed at this week's meeting - many of which play to Australia's economic strengths.
Among them is a new generation of safer nuclear reactors that incorporate more safety systems that kick in automatically, relying less on human intervention to avert disasters. Australia, a major supplier of uranium, stands to benefit from rising global interest in nuclear energy, which does not produce the large amounts of greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuels.
Anoner of the new initiatives on the table is a US government "clean coal" project called Future Gen. It aims to develop coal-fired power stations that emit no carbon dioxide. This would include gasifying the coal before burning it, and capturing and storing the CO2 produced.
Though the technology could reduce emissions, critics believe that it could not be scaled up fast enough to halt climate change. It would still benefit the coal industries. Australia exports $14.7 billion in coal, up from $9.5 billion just four years ago.
"Even if it failed to reach the targets 20 or 30 years from now, the coal industry would still make a profit," says Colin Butler, environment expert at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Don Henry adds that without targets and national legislation, the new pact would disadvantage progressive companies as no one else would bear the costs.
"Also, voluntary methods rely on public subsidies - taxpayers will pay a bomb rather than the polluters," he adds.
Many scientists say the emission of CO2 and five other gases are responsible for rising temperatures on the earth. The average global temperature rose around one degree centigrade in the 20th century.
Some projections suggest that Australia's annual temperature could rise between one and six degrees centigrade by 2070. A recent government report says it may already be too late to save some of the country's environmental landmarks such as the Great Barrier Reef, from the effects of the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Both the US and Australia had earlier refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it cost jobs - about 5 million in the US alone. They also said that it was too lenient on developing nations such as China and India.
Neither China nor India are targets bound by Kyoto to cut greenhouse gases during the agreement's first stage, set to end in 2012. It was agreed that the emerging Asian powers needed economic space to grow, and that those nations most responsible for the current level of pollution - the developed nations - should shoulder the initial burden.
While businesses in the US and Australia have been split in recent years over the Kyoto Protocol, the new pact has brought more businesses along. Gerry Hueston, the president of the oil group BP and a senior member of the Business Council of Australia, has asked fellow council members to adopt plans to cut greenhouse gases. This week will bring to the table many industry representatives from companies such as Exxon Mobil and the mining firm Rio Tinto.
But some experts here say that both Australia and the US are playing the politics of divide and rule in an effort to weaken Kyoto and take along some of the key polluters such as India and China.
With the first stage of Kyoto coming to an end in 2012, and with only 20 percent of emission reduction covered by 2020, the European Union had been working hard to get agreement from the Group of 77 developing nations for future actions to balance the pressure on the rest of the developed world.
"I don't believe that India and China are about to leave Kyoto, but maybe the long-term hope is that they will," says Colin Butler of the Australian National University.
The US and Australia deny that they are trying to undermine the Kyoto accord, insisting instead that the new grouping is meant to compliment it.
Mr. Henry says that Kyoto for all its problems has a fairness mechanism built into it and a majority of the developing countries that are a part of it are benefiting from the market-based mechanisms.
One of India's foremost environmentalists, Sunita Narain, says that India acquiesced to this new group meeting in Sydney because it is vulnerable to global warming. "This country's majority subsists at the margins of survival; any variation in climate can throw India off that edge."
Other than the introduction of the pact in Laos last year and the release of a vision statement, there has been little in the way of detail about the agreement.
"We welcome the initiative, but we have no idea how the architecture of the agreement will work," Mark O' Neill head of the Australian Coal Association, said recently.
Mr. Campbell warned against expecting the first summit to produce a "silver bullet" to the climate change problem.
"Ultimately the test of the success of this partnership will be over a number of years," Campbell told ABC radio.