DURBAN (Reuters) - Almost 200 nations began global climate talks on Monday with time running out to save the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions scientists blame for rising sea levels, intense storms, drought and crop failures.
Countries have been at loggerheads for years and hopes are slim of any major progress, despite increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists. Diplomats also wonder whether host South Africa is up to the challenge of brokering the tough negotiations that run until December 9 in Durban.
Poor nations say wealthy countries got rich using coal, oil and gas and they must be allowed to develop their way out of poverty. The developed nations say big developing economies, such as China, India and Brazil, must submit to emissions targets if the world has any chance of halting dangerous climate change.
And the stakes are high.
Two U.N. reports this month said greenhouse gases had reached record levels in the atmosphere and a warming world would likely bring more floods, stronger cyclones and more intense droughts.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said global average temperatures could rise by 3-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century if governments failed to contain emissions, bringing unprecedented destruction as glaciers melt and sea levels rise.
It said an 80 percent rise in global energy demand was set to raise carbon dioxide (Co2) emissions by 70 percent by 2050 and transport emissions were expected to double, due in part to a surge in demand for cars in developing nations.
The Kyoto Protocol commits most developed nations to legally binding targets to cut emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The talks in Durban are the last chance to set another round of targets before the first stage of the protocol ends in 2012.
"It may seem impossible, but you can get it done," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, told delegates.
Diplomats hope there will be some progress on funding to help developing countries most at risk from the effects of global warming, particularly in Africa and small island states.
Rich nations have committed to a goal of providing $100 billion a year in climate cash by 2020. But the United States and Saudi Arabia have objected to some aspects of the Green Climate Fund that will help handle it.
There is also a chance that some wealthy nations will pledge deeper emissions cuts.
But the debt crisis hitting the euro zone and the United States makes it unlikely those countries will provide more aid or impose new measures that could hurt their growth prospects.
"Given the current global political and economic situations, renewal of the Kyoto Protocol is highly unlikely," said Jennifer Haverkamp, the international climate programme director for Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). "But that is no excuse for the world to sit back and do nothing."
Any accord depends on China and the United States, the world's top emitters, agreeing to binding action under a wider deal by 2015, something both have resisted for years.
Russia, Japan and Canada say they will not sign up to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol unless the biggest emitters do too.
Envoys said there may be a deal struck with a new set of binding targets but only the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, Norway and Switzerland were likely to sign up
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) said: "If Durban puts off a legally binding agreement and closes the door on raising mitigation ambition before 2020 many of our small island states will be literally and figuratively doomed."
Despite nations' individual emissions-cut pledges and the Kyoto pact, the United Nations, International Energy Agency and others say they are not enough to prevent the planet heating up beyond 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, a threshold beyond which scientists say the climate risks becoming unstable.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Agnieszka Flak; Writing by Janet Lawrence)