Representatives of the world's biggest polluters insisted yesterday that industry leaders can be relied upon to voluntarily slash emissions blamed for heating the earth's atmosphere, as they opened a two-day climate conference in Sydney.
The Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate brought together senior ministers from the US, Australia, Japan, China, South Korea and India along with executives from energy and resource firms.
The countries -- with 45 percent of the world's population -- account for nearly half of the world's gross domestic product, energy consumption and global greenhouse gas emissions, the Australian government said in a statement.
Environmentalists have branded the meeting a stunt to divert attention from the US and Australian governments' refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which legally binds countries to targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, and criticized its failure to impose similar cuts on their industries.
At a peaceful protest outside the downtown Sydney hotel hosting the conference, Greenpeace spokesman Ben Pearson said his group wants the meeting to agree to pump money into renewable energy sources that do not contribute to global warming.
Global warming has been blamed for rising sea levels and an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, like the string of hurricanes that lashed the US last year.
"It seems very clear that they need to cover themselves for the fact they haven't ratified Kyoto," Pearson said of the US and Australia. "They need to pretend they are doing something so they have erected this facade."
Canberra and Washington say industry will regulate itself without specific targets or taxes on the amount of carbon they pump into the atmosphere.
"I believe that the people who run the private sector, who run these companies, they do have children, they do have grandchildren, they do live and breathe in the world," US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.
"It's a matter of working with the leadership of these companies and seeking their participation, seeking their leadership in making the types of adjustments that are required," he added.
Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer agreed that industry leaders have to take a lead in tackling emissions.
"The point here is that individual companies have to develop their individual strategies -- we're not trying to run a police state here," he said.
But Frank Zumbo, associate professor in business law at the University of New South Wales, said allowing businesses to regulate themselves under a voluntary code could lead to patchy compliance.
"When you have a voluntary system the danger is that good corporate citizens will behave according to the code, but those who have other agendas do not," he said.
"Some people may be concerned about their children and others think, `Well, thinking about my children is tomorrow's problem. Today I'm here to compete and make the most profits,'" Zumbo said.
"Talk is cheap and the price of inaction is expensive," the group said in a statement. "Simply relying on the good will of industry and promoting business-as-usual cannot ensure that we will reduce pollution at all, let alone enough to tackle climate change."
The US and Australia say enforcing mandatory cuts in emissions will harm their economies by driving up the price of commodities like coal and oil, while simply driving the polluting industries to other countries not covered by the Kyoto Protocol.