World leaders are racing against the clock in an attempt to forge a deal on climate change in Copenhagen that hinges on resolving sharp differences between rich and poorer nations over emissions cuts and their monitoring.
All eyes at the UN summit are on China and the US, the largest emitters of greenhouse gases and the two countries that will do most to decide whether a new global framework can be agreed. Barack Obama, the US president, and Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, are due to join the talks on Friday morning to try to hammer out an agreement.
Such a deal would, most likely, be converted into a treaty next year and be the first to bind all countries to take action on climate change.
The 1997 Kyoto protocol was never ratified by the US, and made no demands on developing countries, notably China.
The US resolved one of the final key issues on Thursday by agreeing to a global goal on financial assistance from the rich world to developing countries, of $100bn by 2020.
But Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, made it clear that the price of the US signing a deal would be for China and other developing countries to agree that their emissions curbs should be internationally monitored. “If there is not even a commitment to pursue transparency [on emissions cuts], that’s kind of a deal breaker for us,” she said.
China said it was committed to transparency, but it remains unlikely that its plans to submit its emissions only to domestic monitoring would be enough.
He Yafei, the deputy foreign minister, said China was prepared to make its actions open, and to engage in “dialogue and co-operation” over its reporting of its emissions reduction measures.
Jairam Ramesh, the Indian environment minister, told the Financial Times: “We are 75 per cent of the way there [on this issue].”
A deal at the summit could also be scuppered by smaller developing countries, which have been “obstructionist” according to some negotiators.
Countries including African and South American nations, concerned about backsliding on funding from richer countries, have used delaying tactics and procedural arguments to hold off agreement. But Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, warned that developing countries would lose if there was no deal.
“Who in Africa would want to tear up a deal that seeks to benefit African states?” he asked the conference.
Ed Miliband, the UK’s climate secretary, said it would be “tragic” if arguments over details derailed the talks, and said nations were in a “race against the clock” to settle their differences.
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Some African countries have rejected the offer of $100bn as inadequate, but other poor countries have indicated that they could be satisfied with that amount.
As leaders arrived in Denmark’s capital and began making speeches, Angela Merkel Germany’s chancellor, warned that the news from Copenhagen was “not good”, adding: “At the moment there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable negotiation process in sight.”
The 193 countries represented at the talks have been divided over the scale of funding that should be provided to the poorest countries, as well as over how stringent their curbs on emissions should be and what systems should be in place to ensure compliance with any agreement.
Talks resumed on Thursday after much of Wednesday was lost to wrangling over procedural questions, but it was estimated that they were running 20 hours behind schedule.
A meeting of ministers and officials to discuss a key negotiating text, which was supposed to have started at 1pm on Wednesday, finally convened later that evening.
Developing countries, including China, have raised a series of objections on points of order that prevented the talks progressing.
Ms Merkel suggested that the presence of more than 100 world leaders in Copenhagen would “give the necessary impulse” to the talks.
But Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, one of the countries most at risk from rising sea levels, said there was still no negotiating text to present to the leaders, although he expected one to emerge in the small hours of Friday.
Mr Nasheed suggested that the united negotiating position of the “G77 and China” group of 130 developing countries, including the leading emerging economies, might begin to break up.
“It is very difficult to maintain a political grouping that was formed with a whole lot of ideology that has become obsolete. So I don’t think that this group will necessarily be maintained when heads of state meet,” he said.
However, some developed country officials were concerned that the leaders of some developing countries appeared more keen on grandstanding than on constructive negotiating.
All leaders must be in agreement if there is to be a deal at Copenhagen to set out a new global framework on cutting greenhouse gas emissions to take over from the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the main provisions of which expire in 2012.
“It was always a high-risk strategy [to bring leaders],” one developed country minister, who would not be named, told the Financial Times. “But if some leaders are not prepared to negotiate, there is a risk that there will not be a satisfactory outcome.”
Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan president, delivered a typically abrasive speech on Wednesday as one of the first leaders to address the conference. He denounced moves by developed countries to speed up the process as “undemocratic”.