The agreement, in conjunction with Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea, was announced by US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick at an Asia-Pacific forum in Laos this week.

It aims to “create new investment opportunities, build local capacity and remove barriers to the introduction of clean, more efficient technologies.”

Clean coal technology – which allows more efficient burning and includes carbon capture elements – topped the list of technologies discussed. This would be of huge benefit to the US, China and Australia – all of which have a large reliance on coal use, while Australia has vital interests in coal and gas exports to China and South Korea.

Nuclear power was also on the list of technologies, with solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower gaining equal mention.

Despite the opportunities for business to trade technologies more easily, the pact contains no timetable for delivery of the aims and certainly no targets for reducing emissions.

Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell said talks had been going on for the past 12 months with Japan joining at the last moment.

The leader of the Australian Green Party, Bob Brown, dismissed the new agreement as “a coal pact” involving four of the world’s largest coal producers. Speaking to reporters, Mr Brown said the pact was designed to “defend the coal industry in an age where it’s the biggest industry contributing deliberately to the global warming threat”.

Environment groups across the world have reacted with suspicion to the new pact. Greenpeace Climate Campaigner Stephanie Tunmore said it was nothing more than a trade agreement in technologies between countries which didn’t even mention greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

“Unfortunately, it seems likely that Mr Bush and Mr Howard are seeking to protect the interests of their domestic fossil fuel industries and to deflect criticism for their total failure to address climate change,” she said.

There is concern among many that the pact will be used by the signatories to undermine the Kyoto Protocol. Negotiations for the second phase of the Protocol begin in Montreal later this year over what emission reductions targets need to be agreed.

Australia and the US have refused to sign the agreement in the past and could well point to this new pact as evidence as to why they do not need to sign now.

European Commission environment spokeswoman Barbara Helferrich echoed the doubts of many when she said the pact would have to be seen in a global context.

“If it is simply technology and clean coal, it is no substitute for agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and we do not expect it to have a real impact on climate change,” she told the BBC. “There will have to be binding global agreements, but on what scale and what basis is yet to be decided.”

Klaus Toepfor Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme said: “It is important to mention that this new initiative is not a substitute for the Kyoto Protocol, its legally binding emission reductions and its various flexible mechanisms including emission trading and the Clean Development Mechanism.”

“However, all countries must look to how we tackle climate change beyond 2012. We need numerous imaginative and diverse initiatives if we are to put the planet on track for the up to 60 per cent emission reductions deemed necessary by scientists. These need to involve not only governments but industry sectors up to climate alliances between cities in the developed and developing world,” he added.

By David Hopkins

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