DURBAN, South Africa — Diplomats frazzled by sleeplessness debated into the early hours of today at a U.N. conference over a complex and far-reaching program meant to set a new course for the global fight against climate change for the coming decades.
South Africa's foreign minister and chairman of the 194-party conference, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, told delegates that failure to agree after 13 days of work would be an unsustainable setback for international efforts to control greenhouse gases.
"This multilateral system remains fragile and will not survive another shock," she told a full meeting of the conference, which had been delayed more than 24 hours while ministers and senior negotiators labored over words and nuances.
The proposed Durban Platform offered answers to problems that have bedeviled global warming negotiations for years about sharing the responsibility for controlling carbon emissions and helping the world's poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations cope with changing forces of nature.
The package must be approved by consensus, and no vote will be called. Determined opposition from even a small group of countries would unravel the deal put together after hundreds of hours of contentious negotiations.
Speakers from many developed countries said the package of documents more than 100 pages thick did not go far enough to help poor nations and did not require industrial countries to make more immediate and serious cuts in their carbon emissions. But most said they would accept it for lack of a better option.
But not Venezuela. "We all know this is a very bad agreement, that it will require more work next year and it cannot be adopted," chief delegate Claudia Solerno said.
After weeks of being accused of obstructionism and delay, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern voiced surprisingly strong support for the deal.
"This is a very significant package. None of us likes everything in it. Believe me, there is plenty the United States is not thrilled about," Stern said. But the package captured important advances that would be undone if it is rejected.
Yesterday, as negotiations dragged on with no sign of breakthrough, some ministers and top negotiators left Durban with no assurance of an agreement.
European Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, drawn and fatigued after two nights with minimal sleep, warned that failure in Durban would jeopardize new momentum in acting against global warming.
Introducing the package late yesterday, Nkoana-Mashabane said its four documents, which were being printed as she spoke, were an imperfect compromise, but they reflected years of negotiations on the most central political responses to global warming.
The package would give new life to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose carbon emissions targets expire next year and apply only to industrial countries.
A separate document obliges major developing nations like China and India, excluded under Kyoto, to accept legally binding emissions targets in the future, by 2020 at the latest.
Together, the two documents overhaul a system designed 20 years ago that divides the world into a handful of wealthy countries facing legal obligations to reduce emissions, and the rest of the world which could undertake voluntary efforts to control carbon.
The European Union, the primary bloc falling under the Kyoto Protocol's reduction commitments, said an extension of its targets was conditional on major developing countries also accepting limits with the same legal accountability. The 20th century division of the globe into two unequal parts was invalid in today's world, the EU said.
The package also would set up the structure and governing bodies of a Green Climate Fund, which will receive and distribute billions of dollars promised annually to poor countries to help them adapt to changing climate conditions and to move toward low-carbon economic growth.
But the document made no specific mention of how those funds would be mobilized. Wealthy countries have pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to poor countries, scaling up from $10 billion today.
The remaining document of more than 50 pages lays out rules for monitoring and verifying emissions reductions, protecting forests, transferring clean technologies to developing countries and scores of technical issues.
In the final hours, talks focused on unresolved differences on a clause encouraging countries to pledge greater reductions of greenhouse gases and to close what is known as the "ambition gap." More than 80 countries have made either legally binding or voluntary pledges to control carbon emissions. But taken together, they will not go far enough to avert a potentially catastrophic rise in average temperatures this century, according to scientific modeling and projections.
Hedegaard said a lack of ambition could derail progress made on a host of other issues.
Countries had made concessions that they had resisted for years, and it would be "irresponsible" to lose that momentum now, she said.
Strong language on curbing emissions is of prime importance to small islands endangered by rising ocean levels and by many poor countries who live in extreme conditions that will be worsened by global warming.
Throughout the talks, the U.S., China and India remained stubbornly opposed to the EU's plan to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto accord by 2020 that also would put them under legal obligations. The talks would conclude by 2015, allowing five years for it to be ratified by national legislatures. The plan insists the new agreement equally oblige all countries — not just the few industrial powers — to abide by emission targets.
Hours were devoted to arcane but diplomatically important questions of whether the objective of the talks was a legal "framework," an "outcome," or an "instrument."
The expiring of Kyoto's targets have hung over the U.N. process for years, and was the most contentious issue dividing rich and poor nations.
Developing countries were adamant that the Kyoto commitments continue since it is the only agreement that compels any nation to reduce emissions. Industrial countries say the document is deeply flawed because it makes no demands on heavily polluting developing countries. It was for that reason that the U.S. never ratified it.
Agreement by developing countries to accept binding targets essentially redraws the map. "That's a very big deal," said Samantha Smith, of WWF International. "That reflects a major macroeconomic and geopolitical change" in climate negotiations.