updated 1/11/2006 10:46:06 AM ET 2006-01-11T15:46:06

The United States and Australia insisted Wednesday at the opening of a two-day climate change conference that industry leaders can be relied upon to voluntarily slash emissions blamed for heating the earth’s 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,” U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said.

“It’s a matter of working with the leadership of these companies and seeking their participation,” he added.

The Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate brought together senior ministers from the United States, 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.

Environmentalists have branded the meeting a stunt to divert attention from the U.S. and Australian governments’ refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which legally binds countries to targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.

‘Individual strategies’ touted
Canberra and Washington say industry will regulate itself without specific targets or taxes on the amount of carbon they pump into the atmosphere.

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.

The United States is the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitter by volume. Australia is the top producer of greenhouse gases per capita, according to the Australia Institute, an environmental think tank.

The United States 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 polluting industries to other countries not covered by the Kyoto Protocol.

Critic cites ‘other agendas’
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.

At a 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 increasingly frequent extreme weather, like the hurricanes that lashed the United States last year.

“It seems very clear that they need to cover themselves for the fact they haven’t ratified Kyoto,” Pearson said of the United States and Australia. “They need to pretend they are doing something so they have erected this facade.”

Japan, China and India have signed on to Kyoto, but the latter two countries were considered developing nations when they joined and do not have any binding emissions targets under the pact.

At a U.N. global warming conference in Canada last month, the United States declined to join an agreement signed by more than 150 nations to open talks on mandatory post-2012 reductions in greenhouse gases.

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