December 29th, 2009
09:22 AM ET

Beyond Copenhagen

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/12/29/wind.farm.jpg

K.B. Keilbach
Author, Global Warming i$ Good For Business

The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference went out with a whimper, much to the dismay of environmental activists who had pushed for a legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Business leaders were also reportedly disappointed in the results, which gave little or no concrete steps for action. In spite of Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard’s insistence that failure was “not an option,” critics claimed that little of substance was actually agreed to during the days of tumultuous and often acrimonious negotiations that surrounded the Copenhagen Accord.

The questions of how much each country must pledge to limit its greenhouse gas emissions and where exactly the funds will come from to help poorer, developing countries cope with climate change were left unanswered for the moment. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing because maybe the real question we need to be asking is not how to curb emissions or subsidize poorer countries but how to develop the clean energies that will make these discussions moot.

In the case of Copenhagen, the lack of consensus may have been due to a matter of perspective as much as it was to an alleged breakdown in processes. By their very nature, the discussions at Copenhagen measured success by looking backward rather than forward—for example, measuring the rise of acceptable global temperatures tomorrow against pre-industrial levels yesterday. Such measurements are useful in setting benchmarks for action, but they are not the same as taking action.

Taking action requires progressing towards a positive outcome, not just away from potential disaster. That progress is measured in terms of goals not yet achieved, perhaps not yet even imagined. When humankind first set its sights on landing on the moon in the 1960s, it was in order to expand, not contract, its horizons. Although the United States ultimately took the lead in achieving that objective, the entire world actually “won” the race to the moon in the sense that everyone took a giant leap forward. Technologically speaking, there was no looking back.

Although the ideals of reducing waste in the form of greenhouse gasses and assisting poorer countries in their efforts to develop thriving green economies might be laudable, they will, at best, only keep us from falling farther behind. They will not move us forward.

For that, the delegates at the Conference would have needed to ask an entirely different set of questions, starting with: How can we increase our current levels of productivity, generate wealth and create jobs while reducing or eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels? The answer, very simply, is that we are going to need to innovate clean technologies that will eliminate the correlation between productivity and greenhouse gas emissions.

China seems to understand this. According to a 2009 report by the Breakthrough Institute and the Information and Technology Information Foundation, China, Japan and South Korea will out-invest the United States 3-to-1 in clean technologies over the next 5 years, putting them at a significant advantage with regards to jobs, tax revenues, and other benefits associated with clean tech growth. Whether or not this will put China at the head of the line to become the world’s next super power remains to be seen.

Many in the world have called on the United States to take a leadership role in the climate debates. However, it is difficult to imagine any country taking a true leadership role by looking backwards. If we expect to move beyond Copenhagen, then we must be prepared to change our perspective and look forward. Our goal must be as clearly defined as it was in the 1960s. We must expand our horizons to develop those technologies that will facilitate productivity and sustainability. Anything short of that is not an option.

Filed under: China • Economy • Environmental issues
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