To fully appreciate what a step backwards the final Copenhagen accord is, one has to recall the buildup to it. For the last two years, global warming activists and UN officials had circled December 2009 on their calendars as the watershed moment for creating a new carbon-constrained global economy for decades to come. And in the nick of time, they would argue, as the existing targets in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol are scheduled to expire in 2012. Furthermore, with the Bush administration gone in 2009, many in the international community felt that the path was clear for the Obama administration to finally include America in binding, verifiable, and enforceable restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, none of this happened in Copenhagen. The final agreement includes no stringent new post-2012 targets — nor even weak ones for that matter. In fact, all that the Copenhagen accord contains is vague aspirational language to the effect that it would be nice if each country decided on its own to reduce emissions. Even this face-saving language had to be pared back at the behest of China and other developing nations that didn’t want any hint that they might be obligated to do something. Equally non-binding promises from developed nations to provide finance to poor countries and to move forward with international monitoring of emissions are similarly meaningless. Anyone who doubts that the Copenhagen accord is a step backwards should compare it to the stronger language in the UN’s 2007 Bali agreement.

The lofty expectations for Copenhagen were lowered considerably in the months before the conference, but not enough to reflect the nearly empty final agreement. Those trying to spin the Copenhagen accord as a success that provides momentum for the currently-stalled Senate bill are fudging the facts even worse than the Climategate scientists.

The biggest political surprise is how little difference the change in administrations made. It turns out that both the Bush and Obama administrations faced the same underlying realities that militate against a big new treaty. In particular, President Obama’s chief negotiator Todd Stern sounded a lot like his Bush administration predecessor in recognizing that an agreement would be worthless if it exempted China, India and other fast developing nations. But, as the two weeks in Copenhagen revealed, these nations remain adamant about retaining the free pass they secured under the Kyoto Protocol. This impasse sank Copenhagen and will very likely sink the next big UN conference in Mexico City next November.

Developing world intransigence also impacts the domestic debate. Manufacturing state Senators fearful of losing jobs to these nations should domestic legislation unilaterally raise manufacturing costs in America can take no comfort from the Copenhagen accord that this potential disparity will be addressed.

The reality is that ratcheting down carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels is a costly and ineffective solution to an overstated problem, and reality was the big winner that emerged from Copenhagen. The Copenhagen fiasco, along with the failure to pass domestic climate legislation this year, means that the debate gets kicked into 2010 with no momentum whatsoever. It will only get harder to push an unpopular global warming agenda in an election year — and that would be a very good thing.

Cross-posted at The Washington Post‘s Planet Panel.