Deep into an unscheduled 13th day, UN climate talks on Saturday struggled to agree on a proposed pact to roll back carbon emissions in a key decade for fighting global warming.
Chances of a deal have receded given the pressure of the clock and an agonisingly slow process to untangle a web of issues.
“There are clearly dangers in the whole process,” said British environment minister Chris Huhne.
“While the political coalition is there to get a result, we are almost literally running out of time,” he told journalists in a midday briefing.
German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen concurred: “The delay is very critical…. It is very doubtful whether we will succeed.”
On the table at the yearly marathon of the 194-nation UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a master plan for strengthening action against greenhouse gases blamed for disrupting Earth’s weather systems.
Pushed by the European Union, the scheme would assure the survival of the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty defended by poor countries but increasingly dismissed by rich ones as out of date.
By 2015, according to the EU scheme, UNFCCC parties would reach a legally binding agreement that, for the first time, would bring all economies — including the emerging giants and the United States — under the same roof.
A draft text close to the EU position put forward overnight by host country South Africa was widely praised as “balanced.”
“We thought it was something that could form the basis of an ultimate conclusion,” Huhne said.
But a cluster of other problems, including discord over a proposed Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable countries, threaten to unravel the complex talks.
With Durban’s International Convention Centre set to close on Saturday evening, time pressures mounted — and memories revived of the Copenhagen Summit.
Intended to set the seal on a historic treaty, that 2009 conference nearly collapsed amid acrimonious finger-pointing. Face was saved in the final hours by a lowest-common-denominator deal cobbled together in back rooms.
One option in Durban given the jumble of unfinished business, said some European delegates, would be to suspend the meeting until the middle of next year.
But UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres ruled this out.
“Today is the last day of the conference…. All of these unhealthy speculations do not help the process,” she told AFP.
An informal coalition of nearly 90 African countries, least developed nations and small island states, along with emerging giants Brazil and South Africa, rallied behind Europe’s plan for a “roadmap.”
This left China, the United States and India to declare their hands.
Under the deal, the EU would keep the Kyoto Protocol alive after its first round of targeted carbon pledges expires at the end of 2012.
Canada, Japan and Russia have already refused to sign up for fresh pledges, saying this is unfair so long as far bigger emitters have no such binds.
In exchange, nations would mandate talks for a new pact — due to be concluded in 2015 — that would draw all major emitters into a single, legally binding framework.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the proposed compromise was the term “legally binding.”
This terminology is perceived as political dynamite in Washington, given the powerful conservative currents in Congress and presidential elections that are less than a year away.
But the US has accepted language similar to the mandate that launched the Kyoto Protocol, paving the way for a possible compromise, Huhne said, calling the change in position “an important concession.”
A draft text circulated overnight would also, for the first time, stipulate that nations “shall raise their level of ambition” in cutting greenhouse gases.
Research presented at Durban said that voluntary carbon pledges under the so-called Copenhagen Accord are falling far short of the goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
In fact, the world is on track for 3.5 C (6.3 F), a likely recipe for droughts, floods, storms and rising sea levels that will threaten tens of millions, according to German data.