The UN climate talks in Cancun were teetering on the brink of failure late last night after a group of Central and South American countries said there would be no deal without a renewal of the current climate treaty, the Kyoto protocol.
Earlier this week, Japan told the conference that it would not agree to a so-called "second commitment period" of Kyoto, which legally binds the rich developed nations to make cuts in their emissions of greenhouse gases – but does not place similar impositions on developing countries. Kyoto runs out at the end of 2012.
The Japanese do not want to be legally bound to cut back on their emissions while their major economic competitors – such as China, India, Indonesia and the US (which withdrew from Kyoto in 2001) – are not.
These nations have been joined unofficially at the conference by three other industrialised countries refusing to renew the treaty; they have not yet spoken out publicly but are believed to be Russia, Canada and Australia.
However, Kyoto has enormous totemic significance for the developing nations as a symbol of rich countries' good faith in the climate negotiations. In response to the emerging anti-Kyoto group, delegates from Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Dominica, collectively known as the Alba group, called a news conference last night to insist that without Kyoto, there would be no deal. They claimed they were backed by all African and Arabic-speaking countries.
The Alba countries are regarded as a radical socialist grouping, and the delegate from Venezuela, Claudia Salerno, said they had just come from a meeting where representatives of an unnamed industrialised country had threatened to go to the beach because they were wasting their time talking about Kyoto, signed in the Japanese city in 1997. Ms Salerno said: "When you find that on the other side of the table, they say they want to go to the beach because they say there's nothing to do and they're just wasting their time, then we in the Alba group will not allow these countries to get away with this and make no commitment."
She said it would be difficult to reach a deal without a renewed Kyoto.
The delegate from Bolivia, Pablo Solon, said the idea of replacing Kyoto with another climate treaty – which is the ultimate aim of the industrialised nations – was like "asking me to take a second wife so I can continue to live with my first wife".
The rich countries, led by the European Union and the US, would like to replace Kyoto with a new treaty that brings all countries into the same legally binding pact to cut carbon – not least because some of the developing countries, such as China and India, are now among the world's biggest CO2 emitters, with China the biggest of all.