Time is quickly running out to strike a deal at global climate talks to save a Kyoto Protocol in its death throes and make major cuts in the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists blame for rising temperatures, wilder weather and crop failures.
Major parties have been at loggerheads for years, warnings of climate disaster are becoming more dire and diplomats worry whether host South Africa is up to the challenge of brokering the tough discussions among nearly 200 countries that run from November 28 to December 9 in the coastal city of Durban.
There are glimmers of hope a deal can be reached on a fund to finance projects for developing countries hardest hit by climate change, and that advanced economies responsible for most global emissions will take it on their own to make deeper cuts at the talks known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP 17.
There is also a chance of a political deal to keep Kyoto alive with a new set of binding targets, but only the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Switzerland are likely to sign up at best. Any accord depends on China and the United States, the world's top emitters, agreeing binding action under a wider deal by 2015, something both have resisted for years.
Expectations are already at rock bottom regarding an international climate change architecture at the summit, and there is no reason to expect any upside, said Divya Reddy of the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005, commits most developed states to binding targets on greenhouse gas emissions. The talks in the South African city of Durban offer delegates their last chance to set another round of fixed targets before the first period commitment ends in 2012.
The major players are at each other's throats on extending Kyoto. The United States still has not ratified the accord, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases China is unwilling to make any commitments until Washington does, and Russia, Japan and Canada say they will not sign up for a second commitment period unless the biggest emitters do too.
Emerging countries insist Kyoto must be extended and that rich nations, which have historically emitted most greenhouse gas pollution, should take on tougher targets to ensure they do their fair share in the fight against climate change.
Developing nations say carbon caps could hurt their growth and programmes to lift millions out of poverty.
On top of the acrimony, the global financial crisis, with mounting debt woes in the euro zone and the United States, makes it even more difficult to find financing and for states to take on emissions cuts that could hurt their growth prospects.
PLANET UNDER THREAT
The stakes are growing increasingly high, with many experts calling for immediate action.
This month, two separate U.N. reports said greenhouse gases have reached record levels in the atmosphere while a warming climate is expected to lead to heavier rainfall, more floods, stronger cyclones and more intense droughts.
Despite individual emissions-cut pledges from countries and the terms of the Kyoto pact, the United Nations, International Energy Agency and others say this is not enough to prevent the planet heating up beyond 2 degrees Celsius.
Global average temperatures could rise by 3-6 degrees by the end of the century if governments fail to contain greenhouse gas emissions, bringing unprecedented destruction as glaciers melt and sea levels rise, the OECD said on Thursday.
The warning from the OECD, whose main paymasters are the United States and other developed economies, underscored fears that the commitment to curb climate-heating gases could falter at a time when much of the world is deep in debt.
It is inevitable that a lot of the key players are both distracted and cautious about taking actions they would see as costly, said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate programme of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Support for the fund could ring hollow because the United Nations says it remains an empty shell awaiting new pledges from cash-strapped governments. Rich nations have committed to a goal of providing $100 billion (64.5 billion pounds) a year in climate cash by 2020, which the Green Climate Fund will help manage. But the United States and Saudi Arabia have objected to some aspect of its design.
South Africa has said it wants to advance an African agenda at the conference but is seen by many diplomats as not having the diplomatic muscle or prestige to broker complex talks.
As the world's poorest continent, Africa is also the most vulnerable to the extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels brought by climate change. In the Horn of Africa, some 13 million people are going hungry due to prolonged drought. In Somalia, the crisis is compounded by conflict.
Agriculture is the most threatened of all sectors. It's likely that yields in Africa will fall between 20 and 30 percent absent very large adaptation investments, said World Bank Climate envoy Andrew Steer.
Todd Stern, the U.S. envoy for climate change, said in a teleconference with journalists this week that Washington was committed to funding climate initiatives but it saw aspect of the U.N. plans as problematic.
Stern also said despite the differences heading into Durban, deliberations and deadlines were powerful forces, which should help bring about a positive outcome.
But Ian Fry, negotiator for the tiny island state of Tuvalu that is threatened with being wiped out by rising sea levels, said he felt COP would deliver little, with major powers to blame.
For small island states this is a total disaster and will have serious implications. They are playing Russian roulette with us with all the chambers loaded with bullets, Fry said.
(Additional reporting by David Fogarty in Singapore, Nina Chestney in London and Brian Love in Paris; Editing by Jon Boyle)