On the eve of the 1998 United Nations climate change conference in Buenos Aires, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd sent a letter to President Clinton urging him not to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Doing so, he said, would not “do more than plug the holes in one end of a leaky boat, while leaving the biggest emitters of the developing world free to drill more holes in the other end of the boat. The net result is the same — we all sink.”

Today we are in a different boat. Next month, ministers from 192 nations will gather in Copenhagen to lay the groundwork for an international climate treaty that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol. There will be a lot of commentary on what Copenhagen means and what it is: I want to tell you what it is not.

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Copenhagen is not Kyoto. The most common and widespread criticism of the Kyoto Protocol was that it did not require major developing countries like China and India to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and the burden for reducing emissions fell largely on richer nations, like the United States and the European Union. It was one of the main reasons why the U.S. did not ratify Kyoto.

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Those concerns will be alleviated in Copenhagen, where a high-level policy agreement is expected to ensure that developing countries take on more responsibility for cutting emissions and paying for programs to do so. That is unlike Kyoto where richer nations paid for developing country emissions reductions through offsets in order to help them lower the cost of their Kyoto Protocol obligations.

This added responsibility is necessary because the world has changed since the Protocol was adopted in 1997. Historically, industrialized nations have been responsible for the bulk of emissions in the atmosphere, but today developing country emissions are growing fast. Given their projected growth, we could not meet the international goal of cutting global emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 even if we zeroed out richer nations’ emissions by that date. The only way to avoid the worst effects of climate change is for developed and developing countries to share responsibility moving forward.

Many developing countries already are implementing major actions to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. For example, China, Brazil, and Mexico have put in place national laws that will collectively, if fully implemented, reduce their projected growth in emissions by more in 2010 than what current U.S. legislation is projected to achieve by 2015. They are willing to take on new actions that are measurable, reportable, and verifiable in exchange for targeted financial and technological incentives from the developed world.

Take the case of China, which is doing more than many believe to reduce their growth in emissions and invest in clean energy technologies. China’s 2007 national climate plan sets an aggressive goal to reduce its energy intensity by 20 percent by 2010. The country has shut down over 54 gigawatts of small coal-fired power plants and it plans to close down another 31 gigawatts by 2011, which is equal to nearly ten percent of all their power plants. It led the world in renewables investment in 2007 with over $10.8 billion, and it is expected to surpass Germany as the world leader in 2010. At 36.7 mpg, its vehicle efficiency standards are years ahead of the U.S.

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China has recognized, perhaps more quickly than we have, the economic benefits of expanded energy efficiency and also the global economic opportunity that exists to lead in these new markets. Capping emissions and placing a price on carbon will provide businesses with regulatory certainty and will jumpstart innovation and investments in energy efficiency, carbon efficiency, and renewable energy across the global economy. As developing countries assume new emission reduction commitments, new markets for green technology will open up and the carbon playing field will begin to level, thereby alleviating concerns about jobs and emissions leaking from countries that have tough anti-pollution laws to countries that do not.  

A major roadblock to realizing this new shared responsibility between developed and developing countries is U.S. action. Congress should approve legislation that includes a strong emissions reduction target, international financing, and provisions to protect our competitive industries — such as iron, cement, steel, and pulp and paper. That will give the U.S. negotiating team a stronger hand in designing the agreement in Copenhagen.

We no longer need to question whether others will act: they are in the boat and underway. It’s time for the U.S. to take the helm, throw its last line over and shove off, or we will fall behind in the clean energy race.