Tens of thousands of modern-day crusaders, charlatans, Nobel laureates, CEOs, quick-buck artists, earnest politicians, and assorted movie extras of every conceivable socio-political-ethnic-economic background will descend on Copenhagen for the next three weeks to participate in an orgy of carbon-bashing and flag-waving. The goal will be to agree on a blueprint — not quite the precise Earth owner’s manual that some had hoped for, but at least a quick-start guide — for reducing greenhouse gas emissions fast enough so that the world avoids the most expensive and unpredictable consequences of climate change.

As the Danes clean up the mess when the party’s over on Dec. 18, the question becomes “what does this all mean on Dec. 19 and beyond?” Starting on that day, as the heavy lifting begins for global negotiators who will be filling in the details of that blueprint, we will be inundated with advice, predictions, and hand-wringing on all sides. Here’s a clip-and-save cheat sheet, suitable for framing or taping to your refrigerator, that will save you time — and money — as you try to crack the “Carbon Code” for yourself, your business, and your investments:

  • December 2009: Conference of the Parties #15 (“COP15”) in Copenhagen. “Parties” to the deals struck so far by the United Nations’ climate club will meet to create a political framework that punts the details of how to reduce carbon (and how fast) to negotiators who will hammer this out over the next 12 months. President Obama will speak to the party of Parties on Dec. 9.
  • January 2010: President Obama and Congress will begin serious work on a Senate version of the House bill (HR 2454) already passed.
  • January 2010: At least 10,000 U.S. facilities must begin measuring carbon emissions under new USEPA rules.
  • January 2010: California starts “early action” regulations/incentives to pick the low-hanging carbon fruit and get some quick reductions. Other states and the feds will follow this, so pay attention even if you’re not in the Golden State.
  • April 2010: Earth Day signing of a U.S. climate bill. The bill will set modest targets for reducing carbon and will authorize the creation of a nationwide carbon cap-and-trade market. To get the votes, the bill will be full of pork for nuclear, “clean coal,” renewables, and more farm biofuel subsidies. Most significantly, the bill will allow states, like California, to set more stringent limits and use both regulation and carbon markets to accomplish their goals.
  • June 2010: Dozens of states that have developed “climate action plans” will begin to impose limits on carbon through energy efficiency measures, renewable energy mandates, and participation in a regional cap-and-trade program. Although each measure and each state’s program will roll out on various timelines, you should know what’s happening in states where you do business by this time. Keep track of it all in real time.
  • Fall 2010: Expect Walmart to announce its requirements for sustainability labels on products, including carbon footprints. If you are part of the Walmart supply chain — and what company is not? — hire staff or a consultant to start measuring, whether or not you are required to do so by USEPA, Chinese authorities, or anyone else.
  • December 2010: COP 16 in Mexico City. World leaders adopt the deal that will replace the Kyoto Protocol. All this means is that the U.N. is organizing each nation’s response to climate change under one roof, but the regulations and low-carbon economic opportunities that matter will still be found in your own backyard.
  • January 2011: California adopts final rules and regulations for its cap-and-trade system (working with a dozen other western states and Canadian provinces) for launch in 2012.
  • March 2011: U.S. facilities must report 2010 carbon emissions to USEPA (and annually thereafter).
  • 2012: Walmart has a carbon footprint label on every product it sells; myriad carbon-busting rules go into effect in states; regional carbon cap-and-trade markets expand in the U.S. Carbon now has a price globally.

These are just a few of the key dates to add to your carbon calendar, but if you pay attention to these milestones, everything else that comes from government or commerce will make sense. And if you happen to be in Denmark in December, don’t be surprised when the bar conversation turns from “what’s your sign?” to “what’s your carbon footprint?”

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