Leading article: Obama can out-green Poznan

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The Independent Online

It could be called talking-shop tourism. Representatives of all the countries of the world gather, under the auspices of the United Nations, to discuss climate change. They meet in cities that hope to lend their names to international agreements. There was Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto. Last year it was Bali; next year it is Copenhagen. Last week it was Poznan. Apart from introducing the former capital of Greater Poland to a travelling circus of politicians, officials, journalists and hangers-on, what did it achieve? The green movement criticised the conference for doing little about a planetary emergency, apart from talking.

Of course, the critics are right, but they are also missing the point. This month was never a good time to hold this conference. The most important event on the route to Copenhagen was never going to be this talking shop, but the inauguration of a new US president next month. Although representatives of the Bush administration were in Poznan last week, they might as well not have been, as they have no authority to commit the world's greatest, and most polluting, power beyond 20 January.

So, if it has been a struggle for journalists to find anything new to report from Poznan, and if it has been a struggle for consumers of media outputs to work out whether anything new happened last week, the reason is simple. The world is waiting for Barack Obama.

That does not mean that Poznan was pointless. The politics, economics and technical design of global policy to mitigate the effect of humanity on the climate are headachingly difficult. The frankly tedious detail of how to limit carbon emissions, and to put a price on activity that harms the environment, needs a lot of talking, not all of it newsworthy.

The important issue, though, is not what was achieved last week. On that, Friends of the Earth is right to say that little progress was made. The big question is whether an effective deal can be reached at Copenhagen in 12 months' time. And that depends, more than anything else, on the new US administration. Two other centres of power are important, namely the UN civil service, led by Ban Ki-moon, and the Chinese Politburo. Mr Ban has said many of the right things since he took over as UN Secretary-General a year ago, and the Chinese leadership certainly takes the issue seriously, has taken some action at home and also pays lip service to the need for global action.

But it is the attitude of the US government that is most important of all, and for once it is no exaggeration to say that, on this issue, president-elect Obama is the most powerful person in the world. What is even more extraordinary, perhaps, is that the early signs from that American constitutional peculiarity, the transition, are hopeful.

Some of the more extravagant expectations of candidate Obama are, of course, bound to be disappointed. But this newspaper regards the satirical demands of some leftists on the internet to "Impeach Obama!" as, well, premature. In any case, on climate change, the embryo Obama administration is preparing for a flying start.

Steven Chu, the Nobel physics laureate chosen as energy secretary last week, has an impressive green record. John Podesta, the head of Obama's transition team, is himself the main author of the "green new deal" by which the new administration hopes to create millions of jobs. Initially, we thought that the new team's early action would be limited to expanding renewable energy. Unlike in this country, wind, wave and solar power has blue-collar support in the US on the grounds that they create jobs that cannot be outsourced abroad.

Now, however, it looks as if president-elect Obama will do much more. Not only will he go for the "quick win" of boosting green energy at home, but he seems prepared to engage with global negotiations in a way that was quite alien to the outgoing President. At the same time, some middle-sized countries seem to sense a change in mood. Mexico last week committed itself to cutting carbon emissions in half by 2050. Suddenly, the prospect opens up that other countries might find themselves exposed as climate-change refuseniks: Canada, Japan, Australia.

The big-picture deal that needs to be struck at Copenhagen is becoming clearer. The rich countries have to commit themselves to credible deep cuts in carbon emissions. The European Union has led the way. Meanwhile, the developing world has to accept caps on emissions, but in return for money from the rich world – compensation, if you like, for our having pulled up the ladder behind us. We can contain our disappointment at the lack of concrete results at Poznan. What matters is the difference that Barack Obama can make in the year running up to Copenhagen.