Yes, It Is the End of the Beginning

Copenhagen -- It was a cold, gray, and dispiriting day here. From morning on, it became increasingly clear that while the major emitting nations (the U.S., China, Europe, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, India, Japan, and South Korea) share a common commitment to reducing their greenhouse pollution and to doing it aggressively, if not yet adequately, the UNFCCC's 15th Council of the Parties was unlikely to yield an agreement that reflected those commitments and aspirations. Indeed, at times it seemed that a lethal brew might prevent any agreement at all. The ingredients in that brew included the weak hand dealt to President Obama by obstructionism in the U.S. Senate, the highly compressed timetable between Obama's inauguration and this conference, and, finally, a profound and historic distrust between the developing economic powerhouses like China and Brazil, the least-developed countries in Africa and elsewhere that are  still mired in poverty and subsistence agriculture, and the industrial world.

This was all complicated by the overly cumbersome and undemocratic ground rules of UN treaty conferences, under which a single country can not only choose not to join a treaty itself -- only fair -- but can also prevent the rest of the world from setting up a treaty for those that are willing to join. So all day there was speculation that spoilers like Venezuela or the Sudan might block any action at all. And it was clear that China and the U.S. were having a hard time resolving the issue of what they each meant by "transparency" in monitoring adherence to emission-reduction commitments. President Obama addressed the convention, but he seemed tired and tense after several hours of unsatisfactory conversations with individual nations, and his speech did not go over well. So things looked bleak.

Then, at about 9:15, deep into the Danish winter night, sunshine began seeping out. Yes, the official political statement coming out of COP15 is relatively weak and incomplete -- more of a commitment to keep talking than a real agreement. But by sidestepping the cumbersome COP process, four nations -- the U.S., China, India, and Brazil -- came up with a four-part deal:

"Developed and developing countries have now agreed to listing their national actions and commitments, a finance mechanism, to set a mitigation target of two degrees Celsius and to provide information on the implementation of their actions through national communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines."

This means that each of these nations has now taken its individual pollution-reduction commitment from Bali and made it part of a new four-way agreement. Although President Obama did not say so, this could serve as a basis for other nations to join in -- or even trump, if Europe and South Africa were to choose more-ambitious goals. This deal is still not nearly enough, even for these four countries, but it is a major step forward. And perhaps most importantly, it puts to rest the claim that China and India would never join, nor be held accountable for, an international accord -- the core argument that has held back Congressional action on U.S. clean-energy legislation.

President Obama did not do this alone. China, I'm convinced, came to Copenhagen wanting a deal but also wanting a larger role in shaping that deal -- a desire that this four-party agreement nicely addresses. France and Ethiopia helped break the bitter deadlock over finance by putting together the first North-South agreement on that topic -- one that the Obama administration's finance proposal tracked in important ways. And, perhaps most significantly, countries such as India, South Korea, South Africa, and Indonesia made historic reversals of their traditional refusal to acknowledge that business-as-usual is no longer good business.

We're now left with a three-fold challenge: pass energy and climate legislation that will enable the U.S. to keep its part of the four-part agreement; launch a series of concrete confidence-building measures that begin implementing climate solutions globally, particularly in the poorest nations; and get ready for more robust and complete negotiations on a final climate agreement in 2010.

The Tivoli roller-coaster ride has ended, and I'm exhausted. Too much adrenaline. Not enough sunshine.