01/06/2009 11:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Different World Than Kyoto

With the target date for the Kyoto Protocol's successor agreement still a year away, and a lame duck U.S. delegation in attendance, nobody expected a watershed moment at the recently concluded climate change conference (COP-14) in Poznan, Poland. While delegates made modest progress on some key issues, the real stuff happened outside the negotiations, as the leaders of some of the highest-emitting and fastest-growing economies pledged to reduce their countries' greenhouse gas emissions.

Brazil announced it would reduce its deforestation rate over 50 percent from recent levels by 2017, avoiding an estimated 4.8 billion tons of CO2 emissions. Mexico pledged to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, employing a "cap-and-trade" policy like the one recently considered by the U.S. Congress. South Africa presented a detailed plan to peak their country's emissions by 2020. And while China--now the world's largest source of annual greenhouse gas emissions--made no new announcements in Poznan, it is on track to reduce its energy intensity 20 percent by 2010. In 2007 alone, China closed over 1,000 inefficient factories.

These developments are significant for two reasons. First, these four countries collectively account for nearly a quarter of global emissions. More importantly, China, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico are all developing countries--"non-Annex I countries" in the parlance of the Kyoto Protocol. Critics perennially complain that international efforts to address global warming won't work unless developing countries--which account for just over half of all global greenhouse gases--take action to reduce their emissions. For their part, developing countries have resisted emissions targets, arguing, legitimately I think, that developed countries have contributed the lion's share of emissions so far, and should lead in making reductions. In any case, the argument that developing countries are taking no action is wrong. This month's pronouncements signal a growing urgency on the part of emerging economies to shift their own development to a more sustainable path.

While the new targets are politically significant, their impact on emissions and domestic policy remains to be seen. Brazil's plan, for example, has come under fire by local environmental groups, who charge that it lacks ambition (the first phase of its target was largely achieved before the plan was even announced) and means little without an implementation plan. There is no doubt that China's plans are being implemented, but as long as China's economic growth outpaces its intensity targets, they will not result in absolute emissions reductions. Per-capita Chinese energy consumption is still well below that in the United States, so reducing emissions intensity is a reasonable near-term goal. Ultimately though, we will need absolute reductions in China as basic energy demand is satisfied and new technology options materialize.

Developing countries have come a long way since the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it did not require them to act. President-elect Obama has stated that his administration will seek deep emissions cuts in the U.S., but Congress will no doubt have an eye on China as it considers what policies to enact. A clear understanding of developing country climate and energy policies will be key to fostering confidence that emissions reductions at home will not be negated by unconstrained growth abroad.

For their part, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa have made at least some of their efforts contingent on outside support, and the Chinese used their program to call on developed countries for greater action. Mexican environment minister Juan Rafael Elvira said that his country's target was meant to spur other countries to reduce their own emissions--and to help Mexico attract investment to make its reductions. South Africa has divided its plan into low- and no-cost efforts it can tackle alone and additional efforts it could undertake with international assistance.

As the Obama administration takes up the negotiating reins, it will be navigating a very different terrain than the one in which the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997. Developing countries have presented a range of initiatives that they are prepared to take forward either unilaterally or with international support. The U.S. must now act quickly to pass strong legislation to spur an economic recovery while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Internationally, the U.S. must seek a fair and effective agreement that supports the initiatives already underway in developing countries. A significant part of the global community is ready to do its part. So must the United States.

Jonathan Lash is President of the World Resources Institute. Taryn Fransen, a Senior Associate at WRI, contributed to this post.