11/30/2010 08:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Year and a Difference

A year ago, world leaders were gathering in Copenhagen, hoping to ink a comprehensive global-climate agreement. The U.S. Senate was thrashing out the details of its own effort to enact a domestic U.S. version of the same mechanism.

This year almost no heads of state are scheduled to be in Cancun, and expectations are far lower. And the Senate has yet to figure out if it can pass any energy legislation at all in its remaining weeks.

What happened?

Not what most people think.

A year ago climate disruption presented three related but distinct challenges. The first challenge, as Bill Clinton articulated it in 1999 at the Seattle trade talks, is "How can we give 7 billion people prosperity without cooking the planet?" Second, can we ensure that the world's forests, prairies, and farmlands, instead of becoming victims of climate disruption, become important buffers and sources of climate security? Third, can we accomplish these two tasks in a collective, intentional, and planned manner, to give all parties certainty about the path forward?

We have, indeed, utterly failed at that last challenge. The world -- and the various regions of the U.S. -- cannot agree on a collective pathway forward, because we cannot agree whether we are sharing a sacrifice or parceling out an opportunity, whether we are playing "Prisoner's Dilemma," "Liar's Poker," or "Chicken." We still don't have the answer to the key question President Obama asked in his speech at Copenhagen: "For while the reality of climate change is not in doubt, I have to be honest, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now and it hangs in the balance."

But remarkably on the other two challenges -- carbon emissions and managing ecosystems -- there has been more progress than anyone would have expected as they walked out of the Bella Center last December.

Lets begin with emissions. Any rational projection of likely carbon emissions for the next decade is smaller, much smaller, than it would have been a year ago. Economics, not climate concern, is the reason. Coal is no longer the obvious low-cost electricity source. Between one third and one half of the U.S. coal power plant fleet will be retired by 2020, because the plants are old, outmoded, and in need of billions of dollars in upgrades. With natural gas prices down and coal prices up, they're not worth the investment.

There is no price on carbon yet, but markets are acting as if there will be. Globally, coal is looking less like the obvious choice for two reasons. There's not enough of it at the price people expected because coal reserves are not as easy to mine as once estimated.  And meanwhile, the price of solar cells continues to come down, as projected, so in many uses and locations, solar is already competitive with new coal. It doesn't require the same transmission investments -- and complete grid parity seems likely in the next decade.

And now let's look at ecosystems. Deforestation is responsible for 20 percent of CO2 emissions globally. And while global dialogue on fossil fuels has bogged down, truly hopeful progress has been made -- and may continue to be made -- on collective action to protect forests. There's considerable doubt that the current UN architecture for saving forests, called REDD, is the real answer, but Norway and Indonesia are well along the way toward a billion dollar deal that would set a model for the rest of us. If, of course, logging interests don't sabotage it.

Brazil, historically the center of concern for deforestation, has been making major progress without any global partner. Deforestation rates are down almost half in the past year, and down 90 percent from the 2004 peak. But even here as progress is made, logging interests fight back. The State of Mato Grosso remains a stubborn outlier, and its legislature recently passed a bill to allow dramatic increases in deforestation.

Brazil is not alone. Indeed, seven major tropical forest countries (China, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, India and Vietnam) have made a transition from net deforestation to net reforestation. But here again there is a caveat: six of the seven (India being the exception) countries substituted imported wood, often illegally sourced, for the domestic logging they had halted. 

And overall the industrial world has made  almost no progress in dealing with the core problem that is blocking ecosystem restoration -- the reliance on industrial, fossil-fuel intensive agriculture and forestry, while doing almost nothing to encourage efficiency and ecological sustainability. In fact, here in the U.S., as we prepare for the next battle over the nation's agricultural policy, the entire sustainability agenda has been effectively hijacked by the out-of-control corn ethanol program -- so that incentives to encourage farmers to reduce fertilizer use and to rely more heavily on regenerative agricultural practices to restore soil carbon are barely even discussed.

Still, the facts on the ground are a good deal brighter than they were a year ago. It's the conversation in the corridors of power that is shameful.