Gatherings of world leaders are never easy events, and last week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney, Australia, was no exception. The United States and South Korea, for example, shared some awkward moments over whether the Korean War should officially be declared over; and environmental activists complained that not enough was done to advance one of the meeting's key issues: climate change.

Yet the very fact that climate change was on the APEC agenda was a start. It was put there by one of the environmentalists' greatest foes, Australian prime minister John Howard — a man who has consistently opposed the notion of mandatory emissions cuts. Unsurprisingly, the statement signed by the 21 APEC leaders was vague, calling for just two specific actions: an additional 20 million hectares of forest in the region by 2020, and a 25% reduction in energy intensity — the amount of greenhouse gases released per dollar of gross domestic product — by 2030. And there are no penalties set out for not meeting these 'aspirational' goals.

It is encouraging that the APEC leaders have issued a climate consensus, however weak. Such discussions, after all, emphasize the increasing importance that the Asia-Pacific region plays in the climate-change arena. Too often the United States and Europe are portrayed as the main players on climate issues, while Asian countries feature mainly when others excuse their alleged inaction by pointing fingers at the booming economies of China and India, who under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change are not bound to reduce their emissions. But China is moving ahead on its own — President Hu Jintao has regularly spoken about the importance of climate change as a global issue, and last week his country announced plans to get 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Political changes in some of the countries holding out on climate change may help facilitate Asian action. Howard is expected to call elections for this winter, and he is running far behind his opposition in the polls. George W. Bush will be out as of January 2009, and nearly all of the leading presidential candidates could provide the US leadership on climate change that has been so sorely lacking.

So what next? Yet more meetings. Earlier this week a number of the Asian players, including Australia, China, Indonesia and India, joined the 'Gleneagles dialogue' in Berlin, in which energy and environment ministers discuss clean-energy goals. This is but a minor step on the path to a real emissions policy; another such sidestep will come at the end of this month, when Bush launches discussions in Washington DC on what to do about climate-change targets when the Kyoto agreement expires in 2012. As the United States has not ratified Kyoto, this is likely to be something of a distraction.

Stakeholders should instead focus their efforts on the talks in early December in Bali, Indonesia, which will include all the parties to Kyoto. This meeting, run by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, embodies the de facto international framework for discussing climate change, and as such is the outlet best suited for constructing emissions commitments.

International negotiators must work together towards a clear and consistent discussion at all these meetings. Representatives from the Asian bloc should continue to keep climate change as a high priority, and make more aggressive moves towards implementing real targets for emissions cuts at the Bali meeting. Asia has both the economic clout and the incentive to be a world leader in climate change.