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The United States has struck what many see as an empty deal on climate change with Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

News of the agreement first reached the media yesterday (27 July) when several outlets announced that the United States and countries in Asia were about to enter a "secret climate pact".

Details emerged today in Laos when the six nations issued a joint "vision statement" at the launch of their Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

The partners include the only two industrialised nations that have not ratified the Kyoto protocol (Australia and the United States) and two developing countries that are fast becoming major emitters of greenhouse gases (China and India).

The statement says the six nations will work together to "develop, deploy and transfer" clean technologies.

These could include less polluting ways of burning coal, and ways to capture and store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide emitted by industry.

It is hoped the technologies will help countries maintain economic growth while limiting greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

But critics see the agreement as a way for the United States to secure a new export market while appearing to do something about greenhouse gas emissions.

"The pact, rather than saving the climate, is nothing more than a trade agreement in energy technologies between the countries in question," said Greenpeace climate campaigner Stephanie Tunmore in a statement today.

"Unfortunately, it seems likely that [US president] Bush and [Australian prime minister] 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."

Others have drawn attention to the fact that the statement is voluntary and does not specifically state what those party to the agreement will do.

"We have serious concerns that the apparent lack of targets in this deal means that there is no sense of what it is ultimately trying to achieve or the urgency of taking action to combat climate change," says Robert May, president of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national science academy.

The statement says the parties "will develop a non-binding compact in which the elements of this shared vision, as well as the ways and means to implement it, will be further defined".

"All eyes should be on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal at the end of November," adds May.

One of the topics up for discussion in Montreal is the participation of developing countries in climate change mitigation after 2012, when the Kyoto Protocol expires.

Under the protocol, developing countries, including China and India, are not required to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

At last year's meeting of parties to the protocol, the G77 group of developing countries refused to discuss a US suggestion that they should submit regular updates on their emissions (see US and poor nations in climate change face-off).

The United States and developing countries have long been at odds over the Kyoto Protocol. The United States insists it will not ratify the protocol because it does not bind developing nations to any emissions targets. Developing countries say they cannot be expected to limit their emissions when the world's greatest emitter refuses to do so.

At last month's G8 summit, the United States agreed to meet with several large developing countries to discuss climate change in November, a move that many saw as progress from the previous standoff (see G8 brings US into climate change debate  and Climate change after Gleneagles).

Yet it emerged yesterday that the United States had been planning an agreement with developing countries for several months before that.

Media sources revealed that an Australian government official had told the Agence France Presse news agency that the Asian-US agreement had been under discussion for five months.

The statement explicitly says the agreement "will complement but not replace the Kyoto Protocol".

Link to the full vision statement

Link to press release from the Australian government