Asia-Pacific Leaders Gamble on Climate Change
The bargaining that produced a climate change agreement is only the beginning for Pacific Rim leaders if they want to stick to their declaration to chart a new international course on global warming.
The modest, and critics say flawed, agreement approved over the weekend contained two initiatives for improving energy efficiency and planting more trees. It put aside targets for cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, like those in the contested Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. global warming pact.
But the program adopted by the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit set precedents that the United States, Japan and Australia say are important as the world grapples with climate change. Chiefly, China, which if not already the biggest polluter will be soon, agreed to a goal that also applies to rich countries.
"This is the first occasion ever that China ... has agreed to any notion of targets at all for developing countries as well as developed countries," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told local television on Sunday. "That is, by the way, an enormous diplomatic breakthrough."
Whether the heads of APEC governments will muster the political will to follow through on climate change remains to be seen.
Kyoto expires in five years, but the APEC commitments will face a test sooner than that as talks on replacing the protocol gear up. The players are countries that support Kyoto, the United States -- which has rejected it -- and developing nations that see climate change as rich nations' problem will be crucial.
"Efforts to date have been providing timetables and targets without knowing what it will cost" to reduce emissions, said Warwick McKibbin, an economist and climate change expert who has written policy papers for the Australian government.
The APEC "meeting itself won't produce anything concrete," he said. "But it will move to meetings in Washington and New York" and then to a U.N. meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
Although Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to the climate-change pact, he argued that developing nations like China have a lesser role to play. In remarks to fellow leaders Saturday, Hu said rich countries have polluted for longer and thus must take the lead in cutting emissions and providing money and technology to help developing countries clean up.
"In tackling climate change, helping others is helping oneself," Hu said.
China, Indonesia and other poorer APEC members like Kyoto because it holds richer countries to this higher standard and exempts developing countries from emissions targets. Even though Kyoto supporters Canada, New Zealand and Japan have failed to meet their targets, experts say the agreement has had a positive effect.
"It's not simply whether any one particular country actually achieved its target or not, it's the overall impact of the protocol which has had an effect of bringing down emissions from what they would have been," said Graeme Pearson, who was the climate director of Australia's main scientific research body from 1992-2002.
Still there's broad recognition that Kyoto, which expires in 2012, has failings that need to be corrected. The U.S., which is the other single largest polluter, rejected the pact because of its developing nation exemption, and needs to be brought inside for any successor arrangement to work, experts and politicians said.
Business executives from the Asia-Pacific region also meeting this week in Sydney called on APEC governments to be more involved. They asked for a consistent set of rules on greenhouse gas emissions so companies could better plan to pay more for polluting or invest in new, cleaner technologies.
Australia is considering a system for buying and trading emissions permits. The plan improves on the "cap-and-trade" one in use in European Union countries, Pearson said. Among the EU's problems, it issued too many permits, causing their value to fall.
Australian researchers are also trying to figure out how to meet emissions controls without sacrificing growth to gain support among poorer countries.
APEC and the U.N.-backed meetings are unlikely to back such ambitious goals in coming months, experts said, but five years remain before Kyoto expires.
"This is not a game. We do not need to find out who is wrong and who is losing. This is APEC. We try to find a compromise," said David Y.L. Lin, a veteran Taiwanese diplomat. "This is an ongoing, incremental process."