"Leadership" signIt was one of the biggest surprises in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, and it may be one of the best reasons for hope now that the meeting has ended in disappointment. Rapidly industrializing developing countries are pressing ahead with their plans to reduce the growth in their carbon emissions, despite the failure to reach a substantial international agreement in the Danish capital.

One by one, as last month’s Copenhagen summit approached, the main developing countries — China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia — announced surprisingly ambitious emission targets. Indeed, measured against what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says will be needed by 2020, they did much more to fulfill their side of the bargain than rich countries. An analysis published during the summit showed that every one of their offers fell within the range of what would be required of them — with Brazil and Indonesia even surpassing that range — while only two of the developed country commitments, from Norway and the E.U., did so.

And the momentum appears to be continuing, even though their governments balked at endorsing global targets for emission cuts at the summit itself.

Little more than a week after leaving Copenhagen, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva signed a law to require a 39 percent reduction on forecast emissions for 2020. His environment minister, Carlos Minc, commented that this showed the country’s determination to respect its pledges: “It doesn’t matter if the Copenhagen summit did not get the results we wanted,” said Minc. “We will still meet our goals.”

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Indonesia’s forestry minister then announced a plan to plant more than 52 million acres of forest by 2020, cutting the growth of its emissions by over 26 percent.  At present, Indonesia’s deforestation, according to a World Bank study, makes it the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. And South Africa is aiming to submit a plan by the end of this month for curbing its emissions growth by 34 percent by 2020.

Even India and China, which proved the most resistant to international targets in Copenhagen — and who, apart from the obstructive Saudi Arabia, expressed most pleasure at its limited achievement — have pressed ahead.

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Indeed, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, was contradicted by his boss after he expressed satisfaction with the results: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insisted that “no one was satisfied with the outcome” [of Copenhagen], adding, in a flourish of hyphens, “There is no escaping the truth that the nations of the world have to move to a low-greenhouse-gas-emissions and energy-efficient-development path.”  India, he added, “must not lag behind” in adopting low-carbon technologies. Sure enough, environment minister Ramesh then announced that the country would go ahead with its plans to cut its carbon intensity — the amount released per unit of GDP — by 20 to 25 percent by 2020. And this without awaiting international financial help. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” said Ramesh. “We will have a low-carbon growth strategy.”

And China, which is already taking big steps to moderate emissions and develop clean technologies, has, if anything, stepped up the pace, despite having done more than any other country to block progress in Copenhagen. China is confident that it will, this year, meet its current target of reducing its carbon intensity by 20 percent in just five years. The country is also drawing up tough new goals for 2015. It is widely expected to exceed its formal pledge of a 40 to 45 percent reduction on 2005 levels by 2020.

Already the world’s leading manufacturer in solar cells — a position achieved in just two years after a standing start — China, last week, signed a deal with a California company to build a series of solar thermal power stations. China’s windpower is expected to exceed its 30,000 MW target by 2012, eight years ahead of schedule. It has just tested the world’s fastest train, as part of a high-speed rail program. And it is increasing sales of electric cars to the United States.

India has invited China, Brazil, and South Africa to meet with it next week to coordinate future strategy. And the E.U. is proposing pursuing a new climate agreement through the G20 — which includes such leading developing countries — rather than through the unwieldy United Nations negotiating system. But all this momentum holds real dangers.

Keen though they are to press ahead with their national strategies, the rapidly industrializing countries are reluctant to be bound into agreements with developed countries. Why? They are uneasy, at the best of times, about being placed under an international, legally binding obligation to curb their pollution, and they balk at any suggestion that developed nations would be telling them what to do. And their wariness is increased because rich countries have so far offered to do less than their share of the job and have a poor record of meeting the targets they set themselves under the Kyoto Protocol.

Besides, a deal between developed and fast-growing developing countries would bypass the U.N., with its universal representation, and thus exclude those nations most likely to be victimized by climate change.  Such an agreement would, effectively, be struck among the polluters. This would mute demands from more than 100 countries, including a call for the world to aim at a 1.5 degree centigrade rise in global temperative rather than a 2 degree one. And it would breed resentment amongst those left out of the bargaining.

Such resentment among poorer and most-vulnerable developing nations emerged as a major problem in Copenhagen. Any way forward will have to address this.