It will involve 10,000 officials from 194 countries in a massive, complex negotiation. But pessimism is in the air as the world community comes together again on Monday to try to negotiate a new deal on climate change.
Entrenched disagreements over renewing the current climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – between China and India on the one hand and Japan, Canada and Russia on the other – look likely to produce a stalemate at best, and at worst, a collapse of the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa.
The dispute over Kyoto, essentially an argument between rich and poor countries about who does what to combat global warming, brought the 2009 Copenhagen conference to within a whisker of complete breakdown.
The argument was only prevented from wrecking the conference at Cancun, Mexico, last year by the trick of "parking" the issue. But now it can no longer be delayed because the Kyoto treaty runs out on 31 December 2012. Developing countries, led by China, now the world's biggest carbon emitter, and India, now number three, want Kyoto renewed because it commits them to no action of their own, while imposing binding emissions cuts on industrialised states.
Yet some of the industrialised nations increasingly see this as unfair – America, the world's second-largest carbon emitter, was the first to do so and pulled out of Kyoto in 2001 – and a group of three major economies, Japan, Canada and Russia, have stated they will not sign a renewed Kyoto under any circumstances.
The looming deadlock is all the more critical because the latest figures on CO2 show emissions soaring above what anyone contemplated four years ago, when the last report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was produced. Global CO2 emissions in 2010 reached 33.51 billion tonnes, up from 31.63 billion in 2009 – an increase of nearly 6 per cent, believed to be the highest-ever percentage increase year on year.
The figures show the surging Chinese economy is the great driver of growth, with the country's emissions in 2010 up to 8.15 billion tonnes from 7.46 billion the year before – a 9.3 per cent increase. This increase of 694 million tonnes alone dwarfs all the carbon emissions which Britain produces in a year. China has taken over the role of the world's biggest polluter yet it is not involved in any binding treaty to bring its emissions down.
If there is any hope for the Durban conference, it lies with a third group of countries led by Britain and the EU, which are prepared to countenance a Kyoto mark two – but only on condition that China and India eventually agree to take part in a parallel new climate treaty, which would involve all countries in a binding agreement to cut CO2 at different rates. Britain and its Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, have been at the forefront of those pushing for this new deal and Mr Huhne will be leading the effort to bring it about in Durban.
"A global deal may be out of reach today, but we must provide a signal that it is our objective," Mr Huhne said this week. "That is absolutely crucial."