Climate talks rarely yield major turning points. The process is incremental. But some are more successful, in getting us where we need to go, than others. And the talks that just ended at Durban are historic. For the first time, all countries agreed to be bound in a new treaty to come into force by 2020, and cover all nations, not just developed ones, in the process also staving off the end of Kyoto, extending it for its 40 members in a new commitment period in its current form until 2015.

Many writers are concerned that 2020 is too late. Here is why I am not. History shows that when a carbon price is expected in the near future, actions are taken in advance. Related: California’s AB 32 Called Economic Boon.

image via United Nations

In California in the seven years leading up to its long-expected cap and trade bill implementation to begin in 2013, the state became the national leader in renewable investment, capturing 40 percent of clean tech investment nationally. When companies expect that there will be a law putting a price on carbon a few years ahead, they invest in renewables and efficiency.

California’s renewable energy growth is already measurable, initially driven by the RES for 20 percent of clean power by 2010, but also by the next expectation that the next target will be 33 percent by 2020 (which has already generated offers of enough renewables to power California 100 poercent by then) but mostly by the long expected cap and trade bill that puts a price on carbon, although nearly torpedoed by fossil money in Proposition 29, that will now begin in 2013 – some seven years later.

In Europe, even before its Kyoto-driven ETS came into effect in 2005, companies were changing the way they do business, and reducing European carbon footprints to half that of the US. By 2008, it had overshot its 2012 targeted reductions already: EU Powers Past Kyoto Renewables Target.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) also overshot its targets, and eight years early, reducing emissions 33 percent below 2005 levels, well over the 10 percent required, and by 2010, much sooner than the 2018 asked for.

Likewise, in China, even before it agreed to binding commitments to lower its greenhouse gases, the state has started to act as if these are in force already: see Green Energy Global Growth Led By China. The level of investment in renewables in China could hardly be any higher than they are, even if it was bound by Kyoto requirement to reduce emissions; far exceeding U.S. renewable investment.

Because the Chinese government sees the inevitability of future climate agreement, it has acted in advance. Now that it has agreed to be part of a legally enforceable global treaty as well, it is formally acknowledging that it is committed to reducing total emissions and not just “emissions intensity.” With this multilateral agreement, China’s actions can no longer be ignored and used for an excuse for inaction.

As these examples show, when a price on carbon is expected, it changes the market in advance. So even though 2020 would be too late to start turning the global ship around, it is not soon enough to finish doing so, because with this agreement, that ship is going to start turning now. And once started, as all these target overshoots show, it is easy to achieve the targets.

The climate meeting in Berlin in 1995 was a similar breakthrough in that it laid the groundwork for the Kyoto Accord. Kyoto succeeded in changing the EU, which was the only major emitter of the time that was both covered and obeyed the mandate; devised policy to lower greenhouse gases, implemented it, and lowered their greenhouse gases. The US did not ratify it. Canada signed it, but was then tempted by the subsequent discovery of tar sands and has not met its target.

But although the EU succeeded – through the European Trading Scheme (ETS) cap and trade – even overshooting the first Kyoto reduction target early – its emissions amount to only 15 percent of the world’s. As a result, Kyoto has only negligibly lowered global total emissions, which since 1995 have gone up on average, though some years are better than others. (Last year was a shock, for example).

But if all the major emitters back in 1997 had signed on to Kyoto, and had done what Europe did, Kyoto would have been effective in lowering emissions globally, just as it has been in Europe. But the US did not sign on. And at the time, China and India were excluded because they were then just “beginner” developing nations with much lower emissions. Now China’s emissions are on a par with Italy’s.

Kyoto failed to curb global total emissions, only because too few of the current emissions were covered.

These are the two reasons that the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” is a historic breakthrough. It will cover every nation. For the first time, all countries will be bound by the same legal form in a new treaty to will be worked out by 2015.

And it sets a date: 2020. If history is any guide; actions will begin to be taken starting now that there is a date certain. And all nations taking action to move to a global clean energy economy is the goal of climate policy.