United Nations climate talks were on the "brink of an agreement" last night that could help determine the amount by which the world warms for decades to come.
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon flew back into Bali after midnight as ministers went into closed-doors negotiations expected to produce a timetable for a new pact to fight climate change.
The UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said: "We are firing the starting shot to deliver a new climate change regime after 2012."
Despite a bruising final 48 hours which saw the EU and the US square up over calls for industrial nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 per cent, a compromise appeared to have been struck in which the language was deliberately made more vague.
"We're prepared to work into the night if necessary," said a spokesman for the British delegation. "We believe a deal is within reach."
Mr De Boer attempted to explain the drawn-out conclusion to the conference, saying: "Countries are treating this with great caution; they don't want to be led up the garden path to somewhere they don't want to go."
The expected agreement came at the end of a fortnight that has seen all-night talks, threats of boycotts, trade sanctions and even a hymn to "warming Mother Earth" written by the host nation President, Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono.
The resulting timetable would be a "unique" achievement, said Mr De Boer. "We're about to embark on something that, for many years, countries were unwilling to embark on," he added.
The new process will replace years of open-ended discussions with a strict timetable for negotiations and a deadline for a final pact in 2009. The goal is a new climate deal to replace the Kyoto protocol under which industrialised nations agreed to cut their carbon emissions by 5 per cent below 1990 levels.
The US is the only major industrialised nation not to sign up to Kyoto. The White House has been accused once again at Bali of undermining serious efforts to control dangerous, man-made climate change, not least by the Nobel laureate Al Gore.
The prospect of a deal last night did little to ease recriminations against the US, which won few friends with a series of late interventions prompting fears of a collapse in talks. In contrast, India and China were widely credited with a constructive approach just as the industrialised world expects them to indicate a willingness to rein in their exploding emissions.
"China came here with a positive approach," said Tony Juniper, head of Friends of the Earth. "We need to see good faith (from the US) rather than provocation towards them."
The talks came at the end of a year in which the UN's panel of climate scientists (IPCC) launched four major reports detailing all aspects of the changing climate. Their work definitively ended the scientific debate on global warming and won the IPCC the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with Mr Gore.
The document they handed to policymakers coming to Bali called for cuts of between 25-40 per cent of emissions by rich countries, and emphasised the need for the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere to peak by 2015. Little reference to this remains in the proposed measures, although countries have been willing to agree to deep cuts by 2050 a timeframe safely over the political horizon.
What Bali has delivered is a series of breakthroughs, from the inclusion of programmes to combat tropical deforestation to mechanisms to help poor countries defend themselves from climate change and develop their economies without following the polluting path taken by their industrialised counterparts.
An audit of the conference
* What was Bali about?
We have just come to the end of the hottest decade recorded. This we are told "unequivocally" is our fault. The international plan for doing something about climate change expires soon and its impact has been largely symbolic. Delegations from every country apart from Burma have been in Bali for UN talks to try to agree an agenda for negotiations that would result, in two years, in a successor to the Kyoto protocol.
* What has been achieved?
For the cynics, not much. Just another round of talks about talks. In fact, a groundbreaking deal to combat deforestation is the most solid outcome. Tropical forests and the carbon they secure were not included in the Kyoto treaty and will be included in its replacement. Money and mechanisms have been put in place to transfer green technology from rich countries to poorer counterparts to enable them to grow their economies, without growing emissions. And the countries that have caused global warming are to set up an "adaptation" fund for developing-world countries that have to deal with it first.
* What's missing?
The focus of much diplomatic sound and fury at Bali was an explicit call for industrialised nations to cut their emissions by 25-40 percent by 2020. The EU and much of the developing world demanded the numbers as a statement of "ambition". The US led the opposition.
* Why are they missing?
The most obvious answer is the Bush administration.
* What happens next?
At least four meetings have been scheduled for next year, culminating in another round of climate talks in Poland.
Have your say: 'People should be aware of the implications'
As year 11 students, we found the article about Al Gore inspiring. Climate change is not viewed as a serious enough issue to be addressed because of the way it is sometimes portrayed. We feel that people should be made properly aware of the implications, such as Florida facing severe flooding. More people might then be more persuaded to act in a more environmentally friendly manner.
Sarah Neagle, Emma Hill, Isobel Heath, Elizabeth Burrows, Alex Pohl,Sophie Alcock
In the 1960s, California imposed strict limits on vehicle exhaust emissions, and periodically tightened those limits. Eventually, the federal government was forced to set national limits, later repealed. So we know that setting limits is something that the Americans can do well, when they put their mind to it. The Bush administration's refusal to be bound by emissions limits set by Bali is justarrogant swagger.
Samuel Lesley, W Sussex
The childish idea that the US can be curbed by unenforceable international agreements is laughable. "Binding targets" are a fantasy. The US government is being perfectly sensible in this case; they recognise a PR exercise when they see one, and are also aware that governments of developing countries see it as a good opportunity to strengthen themselves. Fair enough, but it would be madness for the US to let it happen.
Thus far, the US has scuppered all attempts by the international community to take early measures to reduce climate change, claiming that there was insufficient evidence. Now that we have reached the point where no sane person could reasonably claim not to accept the solid consensus of the scientific community, the US continues to delay and block progress.
It scares me that so many people, including the President of the United States, are prepared to simply shrug their shoulders and say "it might never happen". We all take calculated risks, but surely we should err on the side of caution here. It angers me that President Bush can continue to veto attempts to reduce pollution. In the American vernacular, this is a "no-brainer". Sadly, in my opinion, so is the present US administration and anyone else waiting for further evidence of climate change.
Who cares about the USA? There's only 300 million of them. There is 800 million Europeans. Let's just get on with reducing our own carbon dioxide emissions. That would tackle our part of the problem.