Nearly 200 nations made modest advances in Cancun, Mexico last week towards a new agreement on tackling carbon pollution and modernizing global economies. The incremental progress obscures a bigger question – – can any set of goals, policies, or technologies wean the world off of fossil fuels before the cheap ones run out or before we run out of clean air and a human-friendly atmosphere? The answer may be on the other side of the globe in Kristianstad, Sweden.

Like the hopeful delegates in Cancun, officials in Kristianstad pledged a decade ago to power the city entirely from renewable resources by 2010 – – without really knowing if it was possible or affordable. The policy goal forced them to look at all possibilities, so merely setting the target was a crucial first step. To implement the vision, they looked for renewable resources in the area and found food waste, timber industry waste, human waste, and by-products from the town’s Absolut vodka factory. All of these materials had previously created disposal liabilities for the town, generating air, land, and water pollution. By capturing them as resources, the waste materials are now being converted into biogas (methane) and used to power the town.

Moreover, the economics work better for Kristianstad than importing fossil fuels, the prices and availability of which are increasingly becoming unreliable. The infrastructure needed to convert all of this waste into energy and distribute it to homes and businesses cost $144 million, but the town saves $4 million/year at today’s oil and coal prices. Sure, that’s a thirty six year payback, but the assets are expected to last fifty years and the $4 million/year savings does not include the value of local jobs and tax revenues created, money that otherwise was heading to the Middle East. Gas is also being converted to transportation fuels, so the town goal of being powered entirely by renewable energy is about to come true.

Energy independence; domestic jobs instead of exporting money to import oil; improved air quality and carbon pollution reductions. Sound familiar? It’s what everyone in Cancun was talking about for the past two weeks. It’s what both sides of the aisle in Congress talk about every election cycle (well, OK, maybe not everyone talks glowingly about tackling air and carbon pollution, but they all sound alike on that other stuff) and there’s evidence that US communities are taking a page from the Kristianstad playbook.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The town of Gainesville just announced approval of plans to build a biomass plant in central Florida. Estimated to create 500 jobs and generate over $5 million/year in tax revenues, the project will help Florida achieve Governor Charlie Crist’s visionary goals for energy independence and environmental protection. As the conferees in Cancun tried to show, goals and policies pave the way to results. And watch for more of these regional initiatives that can fill in the blanks left by global agreements, as more states, provinces, and cities band together in their own “Cancun” under the R20 Regions of Climate Action banner.

Launched last month in California under the leadership of another Governor who knows something about the benefits of setting bold goals, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the R20 is the formal alliance that will soon join the Kristianstads and Gainesvilles of the world with other regional governments that want the same results. Congress and the UN need these examples at scale if they are ever to achieve those outcomes for our nations and the world.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In 2011, the world leaders will meet in Durban, South Africa to take another crack at a global carbon deal. Any progress made there will stand firmly on the shoulders of Cancun and the example set by places like Kristianstad – – and both should leave the world more hopeful.