Kent Garber

China's agreement to report emissions opens the possibility that the United States might pass new laws

In the airport, a day after the climate talks ended, travelers paused before an advertisement. It showed an aged Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, with digitally added white hair and sad eyes, looking into the distance. "Nicolas Sarkozy, 2020," it read. In larger text, as if quoting Sarkozy, it said, "I'm sorry. We could have stopped catastrophic climate change .... We didn't."

Similar ads elsewhere featured a different leader, all prematurely aged, looking downcast and haggard. The ads were paid for by Greenpeace, the environmental group, and an alliance calling itself the TckTckTck campaign, both of which slammed the two-week climate talks as a bust.

President Obama, of course, views things differently. As negotiations Friday dribbled into Saturday, he announced what he termed "a major breakthrough" with leaders from China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and the European Union on greenhouse gas emissions, even as he acknowledged that the deal, dubbed the Copenhagen Accord, was only a first step.

The accord is not what many wanted from Copenhagen. It's not binding. Its language is vague. And it basically offers a bunch of "shoulds" rather than "musts." Countries "should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national emissions as soon as possible" and should keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. It has few deadlines and few consequences, and it falls far short of being an actual treaty. But that's not the most optimistic way to look at it. Many observers suggest it is the first in a long line of dominoes that must be knocked over to curb global emissions.

Of the more than 190 countries in Copenhagen, after all, only a handful are responsible for the bulk of the world's emissions. The United States and China are the two largest emitters, so any effective response to global warming is going to have to involve both. And the accord creates conditions that will allow that to happen. Congress, despite years of trying, has so far failed to pass a bill that caps emissions. This year's legislation is held up in the Senate, and one of the major reasons is that senators are concerned about what will happen if the United States acts while China does nothing or very little. Jobs could be lost, industries crippled.

But the accord in Copenhagen should soften those concerns. After pressure from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, China agreed to open up its records. Every two years, China's leaders will report the nation's emissions to the rest of the world. And they've also agreed to some international verification, although the details have yet to be worked out.

This may sound technical, but it almost led to the collapse of the talks. At one point, a compromise seemed possible. "I think there is progress being made -- there is clearly room to reach an agreement," Barbara Finamore, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China program, said around midday Friday. In the ensuing hours, things fell part, only to come back together.

There was clearly a reason Clinton and Obama were so adamant on emissions reporting. As Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of the architects of climate legislation, says, it'll "help the Senate and the House be able to look their constituents in the eye and say that we're joining other countries in this, that others are also doing this." The Senate now plans to take up climate change in spring 2010. That would be the second domino.