Australian officials Sunday trumpeted as "an enormous diplomatic breakthrough" the acceptance by 21 Asia-Pacific countries meeting in Sydney of "aspirational goals" for reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change.
"This is the first occasion ever that China, which is becoming the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter, has agreed to any notion of targets at all for developing countries as well as developed countries," Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said. "That is, by the way, an enormous diplomatic breakthrough."
But analysts who pored over the fine print of the Sydney Declaration issued on the penultimate day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit were lining up to gainsay Downer and write off the document as a diplomatic fudge.
"If this statement is the platform we build future climate-change action on, the world is in trouble," said Catherine Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for international environmental lobby group Greenpeace. "Without binding targets for developed countries, it's little more than a political stunt."
The statement read out by Australian Prime Minister John Howard on the steps of Sydney Opera House said that targets were needed for reducing emissions but did not set them. Commitment to reducing by 25 percent the power input to produce goods and services by 2030 - with 2005 as the base year - was in the text, but that was only a "regional aspirational goal."
Downer's claim of a climate-change breakthrough because APEC roped developing countries into the process of cutting emissions was questioned by Don Henry, head of private think-tank The Australian Conservation Foundation.
He pointed out that China and other developing countries were signatories to the 1997 UN-sponsored Kyoto Protocol on climate change that set 35 industrialized countries' binding emissions-reduction targets and declared developing countries were to play their part later.
Henry said that "aspirational goals" weren't worth the paper they were written on because there was no sanction for those who accepted them but didn't meet them.
"The Kyoto Protocol was established precisely because the aspirational targets of the early 1990s failed to stop the spiralling rise in global emissions," Henry said.
But Australian officials were adamant that they had pulled off a climate coup.
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile described the document as a "very positive and significant step forward, and history in the future will record the Sydney Declaration as a turning point on this global issue." He said its significance was in "recognizing the importance of this issue to the future, but also recognizing how commitments need to be differentially applied as per the economic status of each country."
Australian officials have conceded that setting concrete targets rather than just aspirational goals was never likely because of the resistance of China and other developing countries.
It was also pointed out that Howard was unlikely to draw the US, China, Japan, Russia and Indonesia into setting concrete targets because Australia itself has fought tooth and nail against them.
Both Australia and the US have rejected Kyoto, arguing that accepting a country target would hurt their economies with little impact on global warming, and that it was unfair for only rich countries to bear the cost of addressing climate change.
The US is the single biggest emitter and Australia, the world's biggest coal exporter, leads the emissions rankings on a per capita basis because of its reliance on coal for power generation.