NZ’s APEC host Ardern calls for 'bold' climate action

WELLINGTON (AFP) - Pacific Rim trade and foreign ministers agreed to push for a freeze on fossil fuel subsidies at a virtual summit Wednesday but host Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand said more ''bold'' action on climate change was needed.

Ministers from the 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group met online to discuss their Covid-19 response ahead of a meeting of national leaders on Saturday including US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said highlights included a plan to voluntarily freeze fossil fuel subsidies and commitments to liberalise tariffs on vaccines and other pandemic medical supplies.

Ardern hailed the move on fossil fuel subsidies, saying it had the potential to divert billions of dollars from a heavily polluting sector into green technology.

But as APEC leaders face pressure for meaningful action on climate change amid COP26 talks in Glasgow, Ardern said it did not go far enough.

''Do we need to be more ambitious than this? Absolutely,'' she said.

''We would of course like to see a world where there are no fossil fuel subsidies in our economies, that's long been a position of New Zealand, which we will continue to advocate.''

She added: ''If the world is not ready to take bold action on climate change, then the world must be ready for the disastrous results of climate change.''

The issue was highlighted at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, where the heads of 91 major global companies called for the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.

O'Connor said there was overarching agreement on the need to avoid erecting trade barriers in response to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

''It is free, fair and open trade that will help economies move forward out of this pandemic... we need openness to drive global growth, indeed it is trade that presents the solution to our challenges,'' he said.

''Some 81 million jobs have been lost across the region due to Covid-19 and the impact on supply chains has been significant, but APEC members have rejected protectionism during this crisis.''

APEC's 21 member economies collectively account for almost 40 percent of the world's population and around 60 percent of the global economy.

The summit was originally due to be held in Auckland but is being held online for a second time due to Covid-19 after Malaysia hosted virtually in 2020.

It allowed Ardern to call an unprecedented early leaders' meeting in July, which carried out much of the heavy lifting on agreements surrounding international trade in vaccines and medical equipment.

When APEC leaders meet again early Saturday New Zealand time, topics will include how to reopen borders without spreading the virus, ensuring an equitable pandemic recovery and moving toward a carbon-free economy.

Debate on the virtual sidelines of the summit will be dominated by bids from China and Taiwan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership -- a huge 11-nation free trade pact.

Beijing, which lays claim to Taiwan, would oppose any recognition of the island nation while Australia is unwilling to allow China into the grouping amid a festering trade dispute.

The United States will also be keen to use the event to reaffirm its commitment to trade in the Indo-Pacific after years of protectionist policies under former president Donald Trump.

Washington has offered to host APEC in 2023 after Thailand takes its turn next year, although the US bid is yet to be confirmed.