Co-authored by Rebecca Lefton.

The international negotiations on climate change wrapped up Dec. 19 in Copenhagen. The conference achieved an interim agreement, known as the Copenhagen Accord, which could put the major polluting nations on a pathway to reducing global warming pollution, and it continues to set the expectation for U.S. domestic action on climate change.

Much work remains, but there were also numerous notable achievements and meaningful insights into how the United States can gain from leading the world toward a new international clean-energy agreement.

A “meaningful” deal on climate mitigation

President Barack Obama left Copenhagen Friday night after personally working to secure agreement from China, South Africa, Brazil, and India on a “meaningful and unprecedented” climate change agreement. The president played a major role in crafting the Copenhagen Accord that was hammered out by 28 countries and accepted by 188 by the end of the meeting. Only five countries — Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Sudan — refused the accord.

The Accord will go forward with committed parties now required to submit national action plans for emission reductions by the end of January 2010 that are consistent with the agreement’s stated goal of limiting global temperature increases from carbon pollution from rising to more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Farenheit) over pre-industrial levels.

The Accord stipulates that countries should consider further strengthening this goal by limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C. Further, specific targets are not iterated in the accord and need to be added as soon as possible, but most parties are committed to strengthening it and taking the next step to turn it into a binding agreement by the 2010 U.N. climate summit in Mexico City.

The existing and proposed policies by the nations that produce large amounts of greenhouse gas pollution provide a good start toward the pollution cuts that we need. The Accord allows nations to undertake a full range of policies that reduce pollution, rather than limiting qualifying policies to economy-wide pollution caps. Preliminary results from a Center for American Progress report on carbon cap equivalents using recent data from Project Catalyst finds that current and pending policies among the world’s 17 major carbon polluters will yield 65 percent of reductions needed by 2020 if all parties succeed in doing what they have promised to do as of today.

Responsibility from developing countries

The Kyoto Protocol called on developed countries to reduce emissions but did not demand reductions from developing countries. Major polluting developing countries, including China, India, South Africa, and Brazil, are now poised to make transparent emissions reductions or reductions in pollution rates. This is the first time that developing countries have agreed to binding emission reductions in an international agreement. This represents a major shift from the schism between developed and developing countries that blocked progress in the past.

First-ever compromise to measure, report, and verify pollution reductions

The Accord includes a compromise between the United States and China to verify pollution reductions according to rigorous and transparent guidelines depending on the source of financing for the reductions. All reductions are subject to “international consultation and analysis.” As a New York Times editorial observed, “China is now a player in the effort to combat climate change in a way it has never been, putting measurable emissions reductions targets on the table and accepting verification.”

Serious emissions reductions targets for developing countries

The ramp up to Copenhagen and the United States’ decision to put midterm emission reductions targets and immediate financing numbers on the table prior to the start of the summit stimulated unprecedented national commitments from key countries. China announced on Nov. 26 a target of reducing carbon pollution per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. Soon after the U.S.-India summit in Washington, India announced on Dec. 2 that it intends to decrease its carbon intensity 24 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. More importantly, other clean-energy and climate policies in both countries will result in reductions in China of 13 percent below business-as-usual emissions by 2020 and 19 percent below business-as-usual emissions in India by 2020.

Major financial commitments

Developed countries committed significantly more financial resources than ever before to developing countries for mitigation, adaptation, and forest conservation. This was despite disappointments in negotiations over an international forestry deal and an international technology transfer regime. Developments include:

  • The Accord establishes a “fast start” fund to provide $30 billion from 2010-2012 for assistance to developing countries, including funds for forestry and a commitment to mobilizing $100 billion a year to address the needs of developing countries by 2020. Japan said that it will provide $15 billion through 2012 toward the fast start fund, contingent on achieving an international agreement. And E.U. leaders will provide $10.5 billion over the next three years as part of the fund. The United States promised a fair share of meeting this goal. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States’ funding is contingent on a commitment by developing nations to make emission reductions transparent.
  • The United States will finance $1 billion for avoided deforestation that will be matched by other countries for a total of $3.5 billion to prevent the destruction of tropical forests. The global goal is to cut deforestation by half by 2020, which would be equal to eliminating emissions from the entire global transportation sector.
  • Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the launch of the Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative, or Climate REDI, which will contribute $85 million to a global fund of $350 million over five years to assist developing nations with adoption of clean-energy technology. Secretary Chu also announced 10 new clean-energy technology road maps under the Global Partnership, which was launched during the Major Economies Forum in July in L’Aquila, Italy.

A boost to passage of U.S. climate change legislation

As the Washington Post editorial board observed, the Copenhagen Accord “should prod the U.S. Senate to take up climate-change legislation.” President Obama said that we should meet our commitment to reduce pollution, not only because the science demands it, but because it offers enormous economic opportunity to build new clean-energy companies. This first step in Copenhagen commits the United States to passing legislation to make way for an international binding agreement. It is time for the U.S. Senate to continue its international leadership role by acting in 2010, which would create millions of jobs, secure energy independence, and boost the economy.

The primary international opponents of the Copenhagen Accord are oil states

The leading voices of opposition to the Accord came from Venezuela, Sudan, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The first three nations are oil-producing states that would lose major revenue if countries reduce their global warming pollution by using less oil. The latter two nations are clients of Venezuela that must curry favor with their patron. The ability of a handful of petro-states to block the Accord from being endorsed by the entire U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change at Copenhagen suggests the flawed nature of the United Nations process that requires unanimity among 193 nations. Their opposition will not stop those signing onto the Accord from moving forward and carrying out its mandate, but many observers believe that the outcome of this meeting suggests that alternative venues, such as the Major Economies Forum, which includes the world’s largest developed and developing nations polluters, can and should play a larger role in the design and implementation of future agreements.

Rebecca Lefton is a Researcher for Progressive Media, Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow, and Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.