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APEC leaders agreed to a 5 per cent cap on import duties by 2015 for more than 50 items relating to renewable energy. Photo: Nicolas Walker

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 Co-operation forum agreed to a 5 per cent cap on import duties by 2015 for more than 50 items relating to renewable energy.

The summit also saw agreement to improve university links across the region and seek common standards to allow students and researchers to work overseas.

Speaking after the leaders finalised the agreement, Trade Minister Craig Emerson praised the meeting as a step forward in reducing tariffs.

He said Australia each year exported environmental goods valued at $1.2 billion, part of a total trade across the region of $430 billion covered by the agreement.

''So this is big bickies, this matters a lot for Australia, it matters a lot for the region,'' Dr Emerson said.

APEC has come in for heavy criticism in recent years for drifting away from the organisation's early ambitions to develop a free trade zone.

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.

The organisation says it covers 44 per cent of world trade, including powerhouse economies 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 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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking after the meeting, hailed the outcomes.

The leaders' declaration pledged to ''strongly commit to fight against corruption'' - a clause that especially challenges Russia, which ranks poorly against international standards.

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde urged leaders to followed through on commitments.

The next APEC summit will be in Indonesia.

Talking up a storm

JOHN Denton has chaired many a high-powered meeting, but none quite like this - a private table with China's president Hu Jintao and Russia's ruler Vladimir Putin.

For the Melbourne businessman, the weekend summit in Vladivostok offered rare access to the top echelons of global power.

Mr Denton, head of law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, speaks Russian and was asked to host a round-table discussion on subjects ranging from trends in the Chinese economy to ensuring food supplies in PNG.

He said afterwards, ''I'm pinching myself actually''.