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Carbon market is closely watching the U.S.

While the market for carbon allowances is much further developed in other parts of the world, the next steps the global market takes will be heavily influenced by the United States, experts say.

WASHINGTON--"We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century," President Obama said in his address to Congress earlier this year.

As investors seek out opportunities in the growing global carbon market, and world leaders prepare for the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, it may seem as if the United States is a step behind in reducing carbon emissions; the administration and the Democrat-led Congress are still shaping policy to regulate carbon in the United States.

Yet given the United States' role as a global leader and its potentially substantial carbon market, the rest of the world will be watching what happens here very closely, experts from the carbon finance, climate policy, and clean-tech communities said here Wednesday.

Energy and climate change experts in Washington on Wednesday discussed the growing carbon market. Stephanie Condon/CNET

"What happens here has a profound impact on what everybody else does, (and makes) it more likely to get a decent global agreement," said James Cameron, executive director of Climate Change Capital, an investment management company that specializes in the low-carbon economy.

Even if the United States is not able to pass energy or climate change legislation by December, sincere efforts to do so will be meaningful in Copenhagen, Cameron said. Along with Washington's efforts, policy makers and investors will take note of the clean-tech investment taking place in the United States.

"People will look to what is actually happening here in real life versus policy life," Cameron said. "Clean-tech investment in the United States is phenomenal."

Cameron and others interested in the carbon market gathered in Washington this week for the Carbon TradeEx America forum, hosted by Koelnmesse GmbH, an industry trade show organizer. The carbon market--the trade of carbon allowances--is still in its infancy in North America but stands to grow as Congress considers legislation like Rep. Henry Waxman's American Clean Energy and Security bill. The worldwide carbon market reached a value of $118 billion in 2008, according to the research and analysis firm New Carbon Finance.

Speakers at the conference agreed that the renewable energy investments in the stimulus package will encourage the development of a U.S. carbon market.

Stephen Harper, the director for environmental and energy policy at Intel, called the stimulus package "a good way to demonstrate a lot of good ideas people have talked about."

"It's a down payment only...but if it's done right and the (Department of Energy) actually gets this money out the door, it gives a chance for a number of different experiments," he said.

Harper and others at the conference said technology companies will play a significant role in the reduction of carbon emissions.

Intel, Dell, and a number of other technology companies are working to convince Congress that information and communications technology (ICT) can play an integral role in reducing emissions. To further that point, they started the Digital Energy Solutions campaign last year to promote public policies that employ ICT as a solution.

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, said the United States should adopt a "comprehensive digital transformation strategy."

Information and communications technology is "pervasive and embedded in most of what's going on in today's economy," he said.

Technology companies can play an additional role in enabling the reduction of carbon emissions by facilitating campaigns in favor of energy efficiency policies, said Peter Seligmann, the chairman and CEO of Conservation International.

"Right now President Obama has a political mandate...but you can begin to see the assassination of ideas is just beginning to bubble," Seligmann said. "This is when the Internet leaders, the Googles and Facebooks, have to kick in--this is when that power of reaching millions has to kick in."

Obama is "going to be taken apart by the political process if we don't galvanize millions of people to say (emissions reduction) is important," he continued. "We need to be focused on supporting leadership with the right message, and that's an obligation everybody here has."