The lessons of Copenhagen

Two major negotiations — very important and deeply complex — took place at the same time last month, one in Washington, the other in Copenhagen.

As the Senate worked its way to approval of healthcare legislation, nearly 200 nations gathered for two weeks of talks on climate change.
Policymakers on both continents struggled through grandstanding and obstruction to reach partial outcomes, for which both remain in dispute. The similarity was clear: Legislating is difficult, and negotiating is, too. This is serious business, with a lot at stake.

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Was Copenhagen a success? The answer is a qualified yes.

The underlying tension remains — between the urgency with which climate science is telling us to act and the time required to transform the global politics of energy and economic development.

But the Copenhagen Accord was a real step forward. The direct result of a forceful and determined intervention by President Barack Obama, it frames an encouraging new starting point for future negotiations.

Indeed, Copenhagen was a success even before it started. Country after country announced new steps to accelerate their shift to a clean energy economy — not just rich countries like Japan, but the rapidly industrializing leaders of the developing world, China and India.

More than 100 national leaders themselves came to Copenhagen — not just leaving it to their environment ministers. They had to learn their brief, and they did so seriously. All of the principal participants recognized the imperatives of the science and the need for action.

The U.S. and China, the world’s largest emitters, were the linchpins of the deal. Both agreed to reduce their emissions, and both broke new ground in Copenhagen. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered America’s help to those most affected by climate impacts — poor countries that are least responsible for the problem. China agreed to report on its emissions and verify its reductions on a regular basis, providing the accountability that many skeptics have demanded.

The agreements reached in Copenhagen were a step forward, and (like much legislation on Capitol Hill) were not especially pretty to watch. But countries moved forward and built the foundation for more aggressive future actions. For the negotiators from the United States, how far and how fast they go will, of course, depend on the Congress, and how much authority they believe they have.

Congress will be hearing from a broad array of industries, state and local governments, and citizen groups, pressing for the policy changes needed if the United States is to do its part and move rapidly to a low-carbon future. Energy efficiency, cleaner and renewable fuels, and manufacture of next-generation energy technologies are all elements of the need to “Rebuild America.”

Energy is a policy-driven market, and these new rules are required to make the shift away from our past practices of using the world’s atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gases, especially carbon. We will soon see if the Congress is willing and able to act; if not, we will find out how aggressively the administration is willing to move under the authorities granted under the Clean Air Act.

Difficult choices will have to be made, and priorities set. As with other problems, the most obvious should be tackled first. The government has acted to slow auto emissions, and next should move rapidly to clean up utilities through the combined action of limiting old, dirty fuels and encouraging the introduction of new and cleaner ones.

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Attention must also be given to capturing carbon, as well as limiting its emissions. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is one approach. Another is soil carbon, an essential nutrient for plant growth. We have stripped our soils of a high percentage of the original, beneficial carbon, but with the right rules and with the best modern practices, agriculture and forestry can become a major factor in solving our climate problem through replenished soils enriched by carbon.

Action by the United States will help to build momentum for the next round of climate talks, scheduled to be held in Mexico in December.

The reality of climate change confronts us with a profound and unprecedented responsibility — to save the lives of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. After Copenhagen, we can see the road ahead more clearly — both the perils and the opportunities. Now we have to pick up the pace, increase the momentum, and try to save the world.
 
Wirth is the president of the United Nations Foundation. He represented Colorado in the House and Senate from 1975 to 1992 and served as undersecretary of state for global affairs from 1993 to 1997.