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Looking back, looking forward: 2009

In last year’s retrospective, I wrote of the lags and leaps that characterize progress on climate change. It’s perhaps indicative of the knife’s edge precariousness of the current political situation that I’m not really sure whether 2009 counts as a lag or a leap.

On the leap side: the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill capping carbon emissions in the nation that has historically been the world’s largest emitter. It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a good bill, one that lays a foundation for the decades of work yet to come.

Still open for interpretation: a fractious process in Copenhagen led to a last-minute agreement that even Barack Obama, one of the accord’s primary authors, described as “not sufficient.” Although activists are understandably upset at the slow progress, international politics is a long game, and Copenhagen may be more significant than many frustrated participants yet realize. In particular, the talks helped to formalize the notion that climate negotiations must primarily occur between a group of major economies that includes China, India, Brazil and other large emitters. The meeting also laid out a framework that will only be properly judged in hindsight.

Still unknown: the fate of climate legislation in the Senate. I’d love to express some optimism here, but, for the moment at least, this is looking like a very difficult needle to thread.

On the lag side: China emerged as the clear villain in Copenhagen, in a way that foretells a long struggle ahead. China has always been a bit of a puzzle — the country is actually making a lot of strides on the clean energy front, even as it consumes staggering amounts of coal. Interpreting China’s bluster ahead of the climate talks was difficult, because everyone was jockeying hard for advantage in the upcoming negotiations. But the dust has now cleared, and basically it seems China did everything in its power to torpedo a meaningful climate deal.

As I’ve said before, solving climate change is a forty-year problem at least, and we shouldn’t expect especially rapid progress. It will be several years at least before the U.S. actually implements a strong cap, and it will be several years after that major emitters in the developing world follow suit. The slow progress in 2009 reflects that basic reality. In the meantime, a recent study suggests that fully a fifth of the global “carbon budget” for the first half of the century has already been spent in the past eight years. We still have time, but precious little to waste.

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