Even though the outlook is bleak for a legally binding agreement on climate change coming out of the 12-day meeting, the world's two largest countries, China and India, nonetheless announced targets beforehand to slow their carbon emissions – after years of resisting such a step.
Why this late-minute flash of a red light on greenhouse gases by two of the world's biggest emitters?
One reason may be political pressure not to be seen as international pariahs. But it is also likely that big industrializing countries now want to push the world faster toward clean energy in order to get a piece of the action in selling technologies in solar, wind, and biofuels.
And that same aim may be one reason why President Obama changed his mind and is now expected to offer a 17 percent cut in US carbon emissions by 2020 (based on 2005 levels) – even though the Senate is nowhere close to backing him up on that goal.
The clean-energy business has become a big job creator in many countries. The reasons are many: subsidies, regulations to reduce pollution and oil imports, or simply because more businesses anticipate a new pact on global warming in a year or so.
Mr. Obama places investments in renewables as well as energy efficiency at the front line of his hopes for creating private-sector jobs. Some $80 billion of the 2008 economic stimulus package is slated for such industries.
But there's a bit of a problem for the US in the global rush to renewables.
"The world is passing us by," said US Energy Secretary Steven Chu last month. "We are falling behind in the clean-energy race," or what he calls the second industrial revolution.
He notes that China is spending $9 billion a month on clean energy, having surpassed both the United States and Europe in high-tech manufacturing. By one estimate, the US commands only six of the 30 top companies in wind, solar, and advanced batteries.
In Germany, jobs in the renewable-energy sector are approaching the number in auto manufacturing. Japan has a near monopoly on batteries for hybrid cars. Denmark has the largest wind turbine company. Within a few years, China is expected to dominate the global solar industry. And it is investing $88 billion in its electrical transmission grid to bring solar and wind power to its cities.
The US Energy Department's statistical arm, the Energy Information Administration, estimates that the global investment in wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels will be $2.1 trillion and $1.5 trillion, respectively, by 2030. That's a hunk of change to lose if the US does not become more competitive in these industries.
The lag in US investments is even more worrisome after a report by American University revealing that 84 percent of the stimulus spending for renewable projects has gone to foreign companies.
The biggest concern, though, is that China may soon become the hub in both the manufacturing and innovation of solar and wind technologies. That country's leaders, despite still relying heavily on coal and oil to grow the Chinese economy, have commanded that renewables be a big part of their top-down industrial policy. Americans may be left simply installing clean-energy imports from China rather than making them.
In September, Obama promised that green-energy goods would have a "made in America" stamp on them. But he is stymied by the lack of action in Congress to pass a bill to boost renewable energy (which is separate from a bill to curb carbon emissions). Once lawmakers are done with healthcare, they will need to act on those measures on energy and carbon.
As the nation's energy chief and a former scientist, Mr. Chu is confident that the US can catch up with its competitors in renewables. "When we gear up our research and production of clean-energy technologies, we can still surpass any other country," he says.
China, India, and many other countries have already boarded this train.
When will the US?