Staunch U.S. allies, enviro activists, and just about everyone else was caught flat-footed last week when the U.S., Australia, and four Asian countries unveiled a new pact intended to help curb greenhouse-gas emissions. In the days since, some details about the surprise alliance have trickled out, but its mission and intended impact remain murky.

Known as the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, the six-nation agreement was developed via clandestine negotiations orchestrated by the Bush administration over recent months with China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia — nations that together produce nearly 50 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. A wholly voluntary, nonbinding agreement, its (vaguely) stated aim is to encourage the development and sharing of more efficient energy technologies.

The announcement prompted many to wonder: Is this new partnership a Pepsi to Kyoto’s Coke or more of a … Caffeine-Free Diet Coke?

Answers from the principals were opaque.

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Australian leaders described the deal as a rival to Kyoto, the 141-nation alliance that both Australia and the U.S. rejected despite overwhelming support from the rest of the industrialized world. Said Prime Minister John Howard, “The fairness and effectiveness of this proposal will be superior to the Kyoto Protocol.” Australia’s Environment Minister Ian Campbell echoed that sentiment: “It’s quite clear the Kyoto Protocol won’t get the world to where it wants to go,” he told reporters last Wednesday, one day before official announcement of the pact. “We have got to find something that works better — Australia is working on that with partners around the world.”

Many media outlets conveyed the same message. The newspaper The Australian, which broke the story of the partnership last Wednesday, The New York Times, and the Associated Press all published articles framing the pact as a Kyoto alternative, saying it was designed to “counter” or “replace” the protocol.

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The Bush administration, however, used decidedly less aggressive terms. James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, emphasized to the press that the agreement would be “complementary” to the Kyoto Protocol and was not intended as a substitute.

Perhaps the talking-points memo didn’t make it into everyone’s inbox.

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Result Disoriented

Meanwhile, as President Bush called the agreement a “results-oriented partnership,” his administration struggled to pinpoint what those results might be.

When reporters at a press conference pushed Connaughton to explain the substance of the pact — What technologies will be emphasized? What will the partnerships look like? Who will be carrying them out? What, exactly, is new about this alliance? — he dodged questions with McClellan-esque aplomb. “[W]hat we’re trying to do is create a framework in which we can define more effectively and on a faster timescale real programs of action that will deliver real investments and real places,” he said.

He was careful not to guarantee concrete outcomes: “Hopefully, we’ll get a convergence of some of these broader rhetorical commitments into a program of concrete action.”

On the subject of technology, Connaughton put heavy emphasis on the administration’s interest in expanding both clean coal and nuclear technologies, making about half a dozen references to each. He made only a passing mention of “bio-energy” and one of “renewables,” but never defined what he meant by those catchphrases nor indicated that they were priorities.

This may have something to do with the fact that, as Greenpeace USA research director Kert Davies observed, “The only thing that the U.S. has to sell the developing world is nuclear reactors and this unsubstantiated promise of clean coal. When it comes to developing fuel-efficient cars, solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal, and other renewables technologies, we are badly losing the race to Japan and Europe. We have a comparatively small stake in selling those technologies abroad.”

Australian Prime Minister Howard also talked up coal during his remarks on the agreement: “Australia is the largest coal exporter in the world and it is in Australia’s interests that we try and find a way of coal being consumed in a manner that does not add as much as it does now to greenhouse-gas emissions.” He described the treaty’s emphasis as “finding ways of reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions flowing from the exploitation of traditional energy sources.”

This kind of commentary led Bob Brown, head of Australia’s Green Party, to label the agreement a “coal pact,” noting that Australia isn’t the only big coal producer at the table. China, the U.S., and India are also top producers of this hot commodity, and aren’t anxious to phase it out anytime soon.

But Aussie Environment Minister Campbell articulated a decidedly different technology agenda, painting the agreement as a means to spread clean-energy technologies: “By moving more and more towards renewable [energy], such as solar and wind, and a whole range of technologies that we can develop here in Australia and ultimately export to places like China and India — building partnerships with these countries is going to be the solution.”

Participants weren’t even on the same page about the timeline leading up to the agreement’s release: Campbell told the press that conversations have been going on for a year, while Connaughton said it was “five or six months.”

However long it took, it didn’t produce much in the way of programs, targets, timetables, or dedicated funding. Connaughton effectively confirmed that the pact is a repackaging of old ideas: “What we will be doing is we will be building on an existing platform of bilaterals, on sort of a grab bag of technology initiatives, and bringing it into a more consolidated and more aggressively managed program.”

Confound and Fury

While pact participants were sending mixed messages, critics were fairly unified in their assessment: Without mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, the deal won’t do much to forestall a climate catastrophe.

This view was neatly summed up by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “The [Asia-Pacific] pact amounts to nothing more than a nice little public-relations ploy,” he told Muckraker. “It has almost no meaning. They aren’t even committing money to the effort, much less enacting rules to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.”

David Sandalow, a former Clinton administration State Department official who is currently a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the pact shows very little substance or diplomatic progress. “It’s a great lineup of countries; I just wish they were doing something serious,” he said. “Basically these kind of technology-cooperation partnerships have been around for years. This seems to be nothing but a repackaging of existing technology partnerships tied up in a bow.”

Barbara Helfferich, a spokesperson for the European Union’s environment commissioner, similarly dismissed the effort: “We are not very convinced that a voluntary agreement of this sort will have the significant impact which we need to combat climate change,” she told Agence France-Presse. “It can certainly not substitute for any commitment in terms of a Kyoto-like agreement.”

To get a Bush administration response to these charges, Muckraker put in a call to the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), which handles all climate matters in the department. It was the department’s Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick who formally announced the agreement last week at a press conference with his counterparts from participating countries, and yet OES staffers were unwilling to comment on how much involvement their bureau had in the creation of the pact, or even to discuss the pact on the record. Said one taciturn staffer, “[T]his is an initiative that has been led by the White House.”

This seems further indication that the agreement represents politics without pith. According to Sandalow, former director of the OES, “It’s very hard to imagine that a six-nation agreement of any real substance could be created without the State Department’s involvement at multiple levels.”

David Doniger, policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Climate Center, spoke for many when he argued that the pact’s main function is to distract from what greens and much of the rest of the world see as the administration’s failed climate policy. “The primary motivation for [the agreement] is to look busy,” he said.

The pact was unveiled the same week that Congress passed Bush’s energy bill, which, thanks to its heavy subsidies for the oil, gas, and coal industries, is unlikely to slow the rise of greenhouse-gas emissions.

And whether or not the Asia-Pacific alliance was designed as a rival to Kyoto, the pact will surely compete for attention. Its signatories intend to convene in Australia in November to flesh out plans — the same month that Kyoto signers will gather for a U.N. conference in Montreal to begin hammering out strategies for the next phase in the global battle against climate change, intended to pick up where Kyoto leaves off, in 2012, and to bring developing nations actively into the fold.

Let’s hope China and India aren’t too busy cutting deals on advanced coal plants to discuss capping their greenhouse-gas emissions.