After many years of denying that climate change was an issue or even existed, it is refreshing to see Howard and Bush finally coming to the table to discuss what will be the defining issue of this century. At last, they seem to get what people have been telling them for over a decade. Overall, however, the APEC Declaration on Climate Change, Energy Security and Clean Development is weak and elusive of the major issues and responses that are needed.

For example, much of the text is dominated by statements that constrain the steps that we might take to combat climate change to those which do not affect trade or economic prosperity in the Asia Pacific region. Given the two often take opposing directions, this is lame. Not to say we want policies that crash our economies, but surely environmental issues as important as climate change should not always take the back seat to economics? This of course has been the career-long position of our climate-skeptic-now-supposedly-with-it Prime Minister. Of course, he is cozily embedded in the APEC love-in with his ‘aspirational’ and like-minded buddy, George Bush. Unfortunately, given the serious issues of climate change (as outlined in the recent IPCC 2007 report), rating economics over the environment trades the future for short-term gains today. This may be politically expedient for our poll-driven Prime Minister, but is not good long-term economic management.

The Australian business community understands it far more than leaders like John Howard or Peter Costello. A recent poll indicates that climate change is at the top of the list of business risks – primarily because it stands to radically amplify the uncertainty of the future and consequently escalate business risk.  Surely, APEC should have sort to balance the priorities of economics and the environment.

Talking to a lot of people after the release of this declaration, it is clear that most of us are getting tired of the loose and uncommitted language of the Bush and Howard governments on climate change. To talk only of “long-term aspirational global emissions reduction goals” is a card trick that is fast becoming old. Using “aspirational” is fairly transparent in this context – to “aspire” doesn’t mean you have to achieve your goal, and hence you have the easy out when people come back to measure your performance as a leader or society. It is also somewhat cavalier given how serious the issues are.

What we really need is direct and firm leadership on issue (remember we when we had that? …). Only with the direct action taken today by the world’s major emitters (not just to be talked about in 2012) do we have any chance of avoiding the dangerous interference in the Earth’s climate system that is the focus of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

There are several encouraging aspects of the declaration. The first is to promote the expansion of forest areas within the Asia Pacific region. This will trap 11% of carbon dioxide emissions (once off) and will go a long way to slowing the loss of biodiversity in the region. But I do have a few questions. Does this mean that the destructive and wholesale logging of large areas of the Asia Pacific by large corporations is going to stop? Or is this just simply a face-saving way of allowing our coal intensive economies to “feel better” by planting a few trees in south-east Asia? And how does this stack up against the reticence of our own political leadership to take action on the deforestation of Tasmania and parts of Australia? Will this lead to the perception of double standards by our regional neighbours?

The second is the lip service given to initiatives on coral reefs and coastal resources in the region. This again is laudable given that tens of millions of people that depend on these resources for their daily livelihoods. Again, how will Australia engage to slow the deterioration of coral reefs in the region given the recent reports from the scientific literature that the rate of loss of coral reefs has increased and is now 2% lost per year? Also, given that a doubling of CO2 will eliminate coral reefs and leaders like John Howard can’t even tell us what their long-term emission reduction goal is, is this statement simply another hollow aspirational goal which won’t be achieved? Perhaps this doesn’t concern our Prime Minister, given his total focus on policies that are only relevant to the length of an electoral cycle!

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