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REGIONAL leaders have agreed to cut tariffs on solar panels, wind turbine blades, solar hot water systems and other ''environmental goods'' in what has been hailed as a shift against protectionist sentiment after global financial turmoil.
Meeting in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, the 21 leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum agreed to a 5 per cent cap on import duties by 2015 for more than 50 items relating to renewable energy. Leaders also agreed to improve university links across the region and seek common standards to allow students and researchers to work overseas.
Speaking shortly after the leaders finalised the agreement, the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, filling in for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who left early following the death of her father, praised the meeting as a step forward in reducing tariffs. He said Australia exported $1.2 billion each year of environmental goods, part of a total trade across the region of $430 billion covered by the agreement.
Move away from protectionism ... the tariffs on solar panels are set to be cut. Photo: Vicky Hughson
''So this is big bickies, this matters a lot for Australia, it matters a lot for the region,'' Dr Emerson said.
APEC has been criticised in recent years for drifting away from its early ambitions to develop a free trade zone across the region. But Dr Emerson said APEC had succeeded where other multinational institutions had not, notably the World Trade Organisation, and had reduced average tariffs among its members by 14 per cent to 8 per cent.
APEC boasts its economies account for 44 per cent of world trade, including powerhouse economies such as China and the United States.
''This is the first time and the first forum for a very long time that has actually agreed to reduce tariffs on goods,'' Dr Emerson said. ''When there is a rising tide of protectionism, for the APEC economies to get together and agree to reduce tariffs on a class of goods - in this case, goods used to clean up and protect the environment - it is a tribute to APEC and a great achievement.''
The list of 54 environmental goods includes water filtering and purifying equipment and crushing machines used for recycling.
Dr Emerson said the $10 billion education sector was Australia's third biggest exporter ahead of liquid natural gas exports. He later issued a statement saying Australia had brokered the deal on environmental goods, escaping an impasse with the list limited to 20 products.
He said during an earlier meeting of trade ministers that he had proposed 60 products, then achieved a compromise that was acceptable to the major powers - China, US and Russia.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, hailed the outcome. The leaders' declaration pledged to ''strongly commit to fight against corruption'' - a clause that especially challenges Russia which ranks poorly against international standards.
The next APEC summit will be held in Indonesia.