Last week saw some progress at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change (MEF). For the first time, countries representing 80% of the world’s emissions agreed to work towards ensuring that global temperatures do not exceed 2oC above preindustrial levels. Given the physics of the atmosphere only very significant short-term action by all major emitters can make this possible and the MEF has set an important benchmark for a Copenhagen agreement in December.

However, the holy grail of a global emissions target with ambitious carbon budgets for 2020 in industrialised countries remains elusive for two reasons.

First, the US has yet to commit to a national emission target and this will not be clear until later in the year when the American Clean Energy and Security Act is debated in the US Senate. Second, a framework for driving public and private sector finance into developing country emission reductions is yet to be resolved.

The importance of developed countries like the US and Australia having credible domestic policies to meet targets in place by Copenhagen is key to building trust among developing countries such as China and India; they have experienced empty, international promises before. Developing countries are concerned about their continued development and they want legislation as well as promises to ensure they are not going to be left carrying an unfair emission reduction burden as a result of inadequate actions in industrialised country and little concrete financial assistance .

Despite representing an historic break with the past, the pending U.S. legislation is not immune to criticism. In particular some environmentalists and commentators have pointed to its relatively weak 2020 emissions cap, which will reduce carbon pollution in covered sectors, such as electricity generation, by 17 per cent below 2005 levels, but which is only 4 percent below 1990 levels. This, however, is only part of the story.

The US legislation also includes major commitments to protect tropical forests, strengthen industrial performance standards, and purchase international carbon offsets. According to analysis prepared by the respected World Resource Institute, the cumulative effect of the Bill, if passed by the Senate, will be to reduce the U.S. share of global emissions by around 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The US Environmental Protection Agency has done similar analysis and both indicate a more than 30 percent reductions from today’s levels.

Factoring in the full suite of measures that countries are prepared to commit to has been described by the Center for American Progress as a “carbon cap equivalents” approach. This provides a way of profiling a country’s commitment to meeting emissions reductions and allowing this overall level of ambition to be compared with other countries. This approach also fits well with recent proposals by the Australian Government that would allow countries to register all the national and international actions they are taking in an internationally binding agreement.

Part of the problem in the current negotiations is a lack of trust or mutual recognition of efforts between countries. This “carbon cap equivalents” approach promises a way forward by allowing countries to register all the national and international actions they are taking to address climate change. In spirit it is in fact closer to the original framework for the Kyoto Protocol, which was much more open to counting all complimentary carbon reduction measures that a country was willing to take to meet its commitment.

For example, China is making steady progress toward its goal of achieving a 20 percent reduction in energy intensity by 2010 and also has ambitious renewable energy plans. With a carbon cap equivalents approach, this effort from China would be more clearly recognised. However if we look at the debate in Australia, Europe and U.S., for example, one is often left with the impression that China and other major developing economies are doing nothing to reduce emissions.

As Professor Garnaut’s Review highlighted this is far from the case and China’s actions to control emissions and encourage low emission technology deployment are substantial.

This perhaps reflects the general preoccupation with national carbon targets and the limited recognition being given to the practical steps being taken to control emissions. Targets, however, do not in themselves tackle climate change, policies and actions do.

In the political world of UN negotiations a fair comparison of what countries are actually doing could also help to build a flexible and durable international climate change agreement. So such an approach might not only actually deliver emissions reductions rather than aspirations, but it might also help calm stormy international climate politics.

Clear recognition in an international agreement of the actions all countries are taking would open up the playing field and allow each to count the full measure of their improvements in energy efficiency, frameworks to promote renewable energy, international actions and other complementary polices as part of a holistic package that would add up to their fair share of global action. This is not an attempt to side-step the goals of the UNFCCC process or an attempt to allow industrialised countries to backslide on economy wide reduction commitments.

However it would allow an honest comparison of what all — developed and developing — countries are doing in a way that would be fairly recognised by the international community.

The community of nations needs to be open to such creative solutions to continue to make progress on climate change. In many ways, the Copenhagen process is already far more advanced, nuanced, and achievable than were the Kyoto negotiations in a similar timeframe. The December deadline, that the world set for itself, has become the mother of diplomatic invention. Now is the time to step up and deliver from the bounty of creativity to which this deadline has given birth.

Andrew Light , Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress, Washington D.C., Erwin Jackson, Director, Policy and Research, The Climate Institute, Melbourne, Andrew Pendleton, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research, London. The Center for American Progress, the Climate Institute, Institute for Public Policy Research are foundation members of the Global Climate Network, a collaboration of independent, influential and progressive research and policy organisations in countries key to tackling climate change.