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The 11th hour is, as often happens in negotiations, proving fruitful for the United Nations Climate Change Conference that opens Monday in Copenhagen, Denmark. The last-minute actors are President Barack Obama, who last week said he will personally deliver a pledge to reduce U.S. emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who unveiled an ambitious energy-efficiency target one day later. Those moves have economists, analysts, and technology developers increasingly hopeful that the 11-day talks will secure a deal to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases, thus extending the market for energy-efficient technologies.

The impact could be both immediate and far-reaching, according to Ethan Zindler, who directs U.S. research for the London-based consulting firm New Energy Finance. “It sends an important long-term signal to the marketplace about commitment from multiple nations. That’s something that, particularly in the U.S., there’s been a desire to see for some time,” says Zindler. At the same time, he says, Obama may have made his pledge in the hopes that Copenhagen will help secure the passage of U.S. energy and climate legislation. The climate bill offers incentives for renewable energy installations and large-scale demonstrations of carbon sequestration.

Columbia University economist Graciela Chichilnisky, who crafted the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon trading provisions, predicts that Copenhagen will produce a deal mandating emissions reductions by 2020 equal to or greater than those pledged by Obama. “That is the minimum that will happen,” says Chichilnisky.

Chichilnisky says the U.S. pledge equates to just a 3 percent cut from the Kyoto Protocol’s 1990 baseline. The Obama pledge is dwarfed by the EU’s pledged 20 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020 and the 25 percent cut pledged by Japan. Climatologists are calling for cuts of 80 to 90 percent by 2050. As Chichilnisky says of the U.S. pledge: “It’s absurd, but it’s a beginning.”

Finn Strom Madsen, the executive in charge of R&D for Danish wind-turbine company Vestas, agrees that a deal at Copenhagen is critical for renewable-energy developers, regardless of the scale of the mandate. Madsen says real value in Copenhagen is having world leaders reach “the political consensus that we need to bring alternatives into the conventional energy mix, and that we need to do it faster than we’re doing it today.”

Vestas, in fact, already announced plans this fall to boost its R&D staff of 1,375 people by almost half in order to push ahead with several large R&D efforts simultaneously. These include: a six-megawatt turbine for offshore use that is twice as powerful as Vestas’s biggest turbine; floating foundations for deep offshore waters; and stealth turbines to minimize disruption of air traffic radar. “If it turns out that we don’t get anything [at Copenhagen] and people are throwing rocks at each other, we might reconsider some of the things we’re doing,” says Madsen. “But we certainly expect that we will have a political agreement.”

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Credit: Claus Starup

Tagged: Business, Energy, renewable energy, climate change, China, Obama, clean energy, greenhouse emissions, Copenhagen, climate bill

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