US wary of setting 'hard numbers' on greenhouse gas emissions at Bali talks

The high-level talks have begun. Ministers from some 120 countries were last night grappling with the detail of a road map to save the world from climate change. The UN secretary general flew into Bali yesterday to tell governments that "the eyes of the world are on them".

After a year in which the world has woken up to the threat of global warming, the UN climate talks are expected to deliver a response. But the prospects of a concrete outcome from Bali remain in doubt as negotiators struggle with serious divisions.

The bloc of countries including the UK, the EU and much of the developing world that want to arrest the build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere have coalesced around the demand for a text that would call on industrialised countries to cut their emissions by up to 40 per cent. The opposing camp, led by the US delegation, backed by Canada, and less ardently Japan and Australia, want a two-year timetable for a successor to the Kyoto climate treaty but no mention of "hard numbers". A third and more reactionary bloc including Saudi Arabia want nothing more than talks about talks.

The consequences of failure could not be more stark. A wave of new reports at Bali have foretold of flooding, drought, deforestation and extinctions that await in a world more than 2C warmer than the one in which we live.

In the next 48 hours, something will have to give. Al Gore will address the high-level delegations today. Speaking in Sweden, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner said: "The position of the administration in the US right now appears to be to try to block any progress in Bali. I hope that will change."

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, captured the mood in a comparatively emotional address: "We are a crossroads. One path leads towards a comprehensive climate deal. The other towards betrayal of our planet and of our children. Now we need the political leadership to provide the answer."

What the conference cannot and was never supposed to deliver is an immediate deal. The road map would replace what has been until now an international dialogue, with negotiations that have a specific end date two years from now. The UN's previous attempt to deal with climate change, 10 years ago, resulted in the Kyoto protocol under which the industrialised world committed itself to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels. The important parts of that treaty expire in 2012 and Bali is tasked with launching the process that will deliver a successor to Kyoto.

The road map analogy is intended to convey the need for a strict timetable. Instead it is in danger of conjuring up the hopelessness that has surrounded the Israel-Palestine question.

Hilary Benn, Britain's Environment Secretary, said: "The world is watching and expects us to come up with something. The mood and atmosphere is very strong, there is a desire to get an agreement and nobody who has been in the hall can be in any doubt of that."

The battleground for negotiators is a five-page text, which, if agreed tomorrow, would act as a detailed agenda leading to an international deal at a summit in Copenhagen in two years' time. As of last night, that text included scientists' calls for a 25-40 per cent reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from industrialised nations by 2020.

The US delegation, led by Harlan Watson, has declared that America does not believe in negotiations which prejudge the outcome by including specific targets from the start. The official delegation has no one higher than an under-secretary of state, but that won't stop them wrecking the talks, said analysts. And Mr Ban appeared yesterday to admit that the US will get its way.

Leaders at Bali are desperate to dispel the impression that the negotiations are just more talks about talks. The bottom line for the leading delegations is an agreement to engage all 190 countries in a binding negotiation with a clear finishing date.

A Greenpeace political analyst said the process was "on the edge right now". "It's clear what the science demands and what the public demands, which is more than procedure," he said.