Durban: Almost 200 nations began global climate talks on Monday with time running out to save the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions scientists blame for rising sea levels, intense storms, drought and crop failures.
Poor nations say wealthy countries became rich using coal, oil and gas and that they must be allowed to burn fossil fuels to escape poverty. Rich nations say major developing economies, such as China, India and Brazil, must submit to emissions cuts if the world has any chance of halting dangerous climate change.
The stakes are high. Two UN reports this month said greenhouse gases had reached record levels in the atmosphere and a warming world would likely bring more floods, stronger cyclones and more intense droughts.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said global average temperatures could rise by 3-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if governments failed to contain emissions, bringing unprecedented destruction as glaciers melt and sea levels rise.
It said an 80 percent rise in global energy demand was set to raise carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions by 70 percent by 2050 and transport emissions were expected to double, due in part to a surge in demand for cars in developing nations.
EU climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger told a news conference unless progress was made, "(People) will just lose confidence in this travelling circus. How high must the water get in these conference places before the negotiators start deciding?"
Flash flooding from heavy rain killed at least six people in Durban the night before the talks opened.
The Kyoto Protocol commits most developed nations to legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The talks in Durban are the last chance to set another round of targets before the first stage of the protocol ends in 2012.
"It may seem impossible, but you can get it done," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, told delegates.
Diplomats hope there will be some progress on funding to help developing countries most at risk from the effects of global warming, particularly in Africa and small island states.
Rich nations have committed to a goal of providing $100 billion a year in climate cash by 2020. But the United States and Saudi Arabia have objected to some aspects of the Green Climate Fund that will help manage it.
There is also a chance that some nations will pledge deeper emissions cuts.
But the debt crisis hitting the euro zone and the United States makes it unlikely those countries will provide more aid or impose new measures that could hurt their growth prospects.
EU envoys said they want a new deal for emissions cuts reached by 2015 and in place by 2020, and it will only be effective if major polluters sign on.
Any accord depends on China and the United States, the world's top emitters, agreeing to binding action under a wider deal by 2015, something both have resisted for years.
Russia, Japan and Canada say they will not sign up to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol unless the biggest emitters do too. The United States, which never ratified the protocol, warned its commitments would be tied to pledges made by major emerging economies.
"The structure of a legal agreement in which we are bound and those economies are not is untenable. It will not solve the problem. It will not be accepted in the United States," U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said.
Negotiators said there may be a deal struck with a new set of binding targets but only the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Switzerland were likely to sign up
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) said: "If Durban puts off a legally binding agreement and closes the door on raising mitigation ambition before 2020 many of our small island states will be literally and figuratively doomed."
Despite nations' individual emissions-cut pledges and the Kyoto pact, the United Nations, International Energy Agency and others say they are not enough to prevent the planet heating up beyond 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, a threshold beyond which scientists say the climate risks becoming unstable.
Countries agreed last year in Cancun that deep emissions cuts were needed to hold temperature rises below 2 degrees C.