10/12/2011 09:14 GMT | Updated 10/12/2011 10:20 GMT

Durban Summit: Hopes For Comprehensive Action On Climate Change Dimming

Hopes were dimming on Saturday afternoon that a comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions plan to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol could be agreed at a climate summit in Durban, South Africa, after negotiations spilled over an extra day.

A draft summit document circulated at the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) said that delegates had decided to develop a new protocol, or similar legal instrument, that would apply to all of the countries signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The European Union had formed an unlikely alliance with the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) bloc, all of whom had been driving for a binding deal. However, a lack of coherence between the positions of other major carbon emitters and industrialising countries led to fears that the meeting may dissipate before a deal could be signed.

However, any new agreement would not come into force until 2015, as the parties will only agree to beginning the process towards its creation, and it is uncertain that negotiations can be completed before the summit ends.

The US, China and India have stood in the way of a new deal, according to delegates and press reports.

With negotiations overshadowed by events in Brussels, policymakers struggled to agree even on a timetable for starting the "roadmap" for emissions reductions.

Perhaps significantly, however, they did officially recognise for the first time that the current cuts in carbon emissions will fail to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2°C.

Lord Nicholas Stern's 2006 review of climate change economics, which remains the reference text for much of modern thinking on the subject, said that a 2°C rise in global temperatures would lead to a reduction in global output of 3% per year, as habitats are degraded and ecological services lost.

By contrast, the global recession of 2009 saw output fall by 0.7%.

Further rises in temperature could cause even more alarming falls in output, as well as an increased incidence of catastrophic weather events and species extinction.

In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal this week, Stern warned that he and his team might have actually underestimated the risks. "We were deeply worried, but we should have been still more deeply worried about the consequences," he said.

The Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997 and finally came into force in 2005 when Russia finally ratified the treaty, which bound signatories to attempt to stabilise levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The United States, the world's largest emitter, is still outside the treaty process and has not signed the Kyoto Protocol.

Some progress seems to have been made on climate funding, with the administration of the Green Climate Fund, a facility that will ultimately have $100bn to disburse to help developing countries to build cleaner infrastructure and adapt to climate change.

Many African and island nations went into the summit with adaptation to worsening climate events as a key negotiating position. Developing countries have increasingly found themselves on the front line of worsening conditions for agriculture, and are often less well able to respond to emergencies.

Some in the developing world feel that industrialised countries have an obligation to pay for adaptation to climate change, having been responsible for much of the runaway growth in carbon emissions since the industrial revolution.

Industrialising countries, such as India, China and South Africa itself are all seeking short term economic growth and employment as they look to overcome the domestic challenges of poverty reduction and social development. Adding the cost of "greening" their infrastructure could curtail that growth in the near term.

At the same time, many industrialised countries are experiencing serious cash shortages - as evidenced in Europe - and will struggle to pay for their own reduction efforts.