British Government officials believe there is no hope of signing a legally binding climate change treaty in Copenhagen next month.
The positions of major world powers are so far apart that another year or even more may be needed to negotiate a world climate treaty, senior British sources said at talks in Barcelona, which end today.
The likely delay will dismay millions of people in countries already threatened by global warming and further heighten the risk of dangerous climate change. It means another 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will go into the atmosphere from industry, power generation, transport and deforestation before the world can agree on how to cut it back and try to keep rising temperatures below the critical C above the pre-industrial level, which is regarded as the danger threshold.
The key accord – if it is eventually signed – may now be known by the world as the Mexico City treaty, which is where the next full-scale UN climate meeting is scheduled to be held, in December 2010.
Writing today for The Independent the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, also admits that a deal in Copenhagen is now unlikely. "The barriers to agreement on climate finance remain substantial," he writes. "Even if countries agree the levels of finance, few will want to hand over money if they lack confidence in the means of delivering it."
The development has disconcerted observers at Barcelona, where it has become clear over the course of this week's talks that countries are still so far apart on how to act on climate change – with the American position the farthest from everyone else – that the most that Copenhagen can now produce is a "political" agreement on climate change, which would not be legally binding like the current climate treaty, the Kyoto protocol.
But yesterday's frank admission, for the first time, that it might take another year or even longer to produce a proper treaty, after 10,000 officials from 192 countries have already spent two years working to a Copenhagen deadline, showed just how bogged down the negotiating process has become.
Although there are various stumbling blocks, there is no doubt that the continued lack of a serious American offer on cutting its greenhouse gas emissions and providing climate finance for the developing nations – the bill which might provide them is stuck in the US Senate – is the principle obstacle to progress. "Copenhagen is one of the most important meetings in human history. But the politicians seem determined to blow it," said Joss Garman, climate campaigner for Greenpeace.
"The US is becoming a dead weight in these talks, and so much can be blamed on the Big Carbon special interests that are driving Washington's position. It's time for Europe to stand up, not give up."
But British sources said yesterday that it was now "simply not possible" to sign a legally binding climate treaty at the meeting, which lasts from 7 to 19 December.
Negotiations to do this after Copenhagen would take "at least six months" and the process would be "ideally, no longer than a year", the sources said. Negotiators are already discussing options for further climate meetings in 2010; Germany in June and Mexico in December are the intended locations.
However, Britain is now leading a push to give teeth to the accord which Copenhagen is expected to produce.
"The UK is pushing for a comprehensive, politically binding UN agreement at Copenhagen which also sets out a very clear timetable to a legally binding treaty," said a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Yesterday the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, said that although talks were "moving slowly and not going well", he still thought it possible that the US would agree to such a deal next month.
America had "a clear set of ambitions" despite its "domestic issues," he said, adding: "We know we need them as part of an agreement. The biggest flaw in Kyoto was not having the US in that agreement." His optimism was given some backing at Barcelona. The US head of delegation at the talks, Jonathan Pershing, when asked if a politically binding agreement and then a legally binding agreement were possible, said: "We think we can get both."
Mr Pershing said: "We think we can an agreement of substance that gets countries involved and includes all the key elements. We think that is possible."
World climate treaty Catch-22: The obstacles
United States Senate
The chief obstacle. Potential US offers on emissions cuts and finance are bogged down in the Climate Bill going through the Senate, which is now not expected to be passed before the Copenhagen meeting. It means that the US has been unable to make firm negotiating commitments on anything, so other countries in turn are reluctant to do so. "It's a Catch-22 situation," said the EU's chief climate negotiatior, Artur Runge-Metzger, yesterday. "People are waiting for each other, so it's very hard to blame one country." Dr Runge-Metzger accepted that "the American position is significant in terms of the delay".
Canada, Russia and others
Other industrialised countries such as Canada and Russia have still not set emissions reduction targets, and developing countries, which will create 90 per cent of all future carbon emissions and so must be brought into a future climate treaty, object to this.
Some that have set targets, such as Japan, are reluctant to agree the sort of financial sums that the developing countries want.
Even the EU pledges to cut its emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, and by 30 per cent if there is a deal at Copenhagen, and to provide substantial finance, has not been enough. The developing countries want such targets increased before they will act themselves.