(Reuters) - Ministers fought to save U.N. climate talks from collapse on Saturday, searching to narrow differences between rich and poor nations over how quickly to fight global warming.
Ministerial negotiations in the South African port city of Durban dragged into Saturday afternoon but with many delegates due to head home, there was a strong chance real decisions would be put off until next year.
That would be a major setback for host South Africa and raise the prospect that the Kyoto Protocol, the only global pact that enforces carbon cuts, could expire at the end of next year with no successor treaty in place.
Behind the haggling over technical details, the talks boil down to a tussle between the United States, which wants all polluters to be held to the same legal standard on emissions cuts, and China and India which want to ensure their fast growing economies are not shackled.
"We are just right now discussing how to increase ambition, not only in the long-term but also in the short term," said EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.
"I don't give up. We never give up until all the possibilities are exhausted. Some of them are moving. It would be such a pity if the world wasted this opportunity," she said.
Negotiators were arguing over the wording of a range of highly technical sections that make up the broad agreement, which covers a range of topics from greenhouse gas emissions targets to forestry accounting rules, green tech transfers and cash to help poor countries adapt to climate change.
Two weeks of talks between almost 200 states in the South African port of Durban were due to end on Friday. But island nations and developing states under threat from the rising sea-levels and extreme weather linked to global warming, demanded a more ambitious text.
The European Union backed the group, having sought to build a consensus around its roadmap for push all major polluters to accept legally binding cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions.
"They're working. They're working hard. You have to give them time to work," said U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres.
But Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists lobby group said the talks could not drag on forever.
"We are getting to the point where they have to come up quickly with a deal and bring it to the plenary or suspend the discussions and have the secretariat say when they will resume again," he said.
Many delegates from poor nations were packing their bags on Saturday, having booked flights home. That could leave the countries most vulnerable to climate change without a voice when the plenary session reconvenes.
"Developing countries have very small delegations, two to three people... Many of us have already left," said Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, chairman of the Africa Group. "Many ministers are also gone from our group, so that creates a bit of a problem."
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has struggled to draft a document that can both advance the fight against climate change and secure a broad consensus.
Changes put forward on Saturday disappointed developing states and the European Union, who complained they contained no reference to how the fight against climate change would be paid for and set no date by when cuts to emissions must be decided.
The discussion document also deferred decisions on cutting emissions from international aviation and shipping to next year.
The European Union has tried to rally support for its plan to set a date of 2015 at the latest for a new climate deal that would impose binding cuts on the world's biggest emitters of heat-trapping gases. Any deal could then come into force up to five years later.
Failure to reach a concrete accord in Durban would cast doubt over measures tentatively agreed by delegates. They include measures to protect forests and another to bring to life the Green Climate Fund, designed to help poor nations tackle global warming.
U.N. reports released in the last month show time is running out to restrict global warming to safe limits, generally accepted as within a 2 degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures. A warming planet has already intensified droughts and floods, increased crop failures and sea levels could rise to levels that would submerge several small island nations.
Many of their delegates wanted South Africa to do more to broker a deal that better protects the poor countries it pledged to help, and were disappointed the host did not show more leadership to push through a settlement.
"They have let agreements slip through their fingers. If we do reach any outcome that advances the process, it will not be because of South Africa's leadership. It will be despite South Africa," said one envoy.