The deal struck in Buenos Aires means that a timetable has been set for reducing harmful gases. The US and 37 other industrial nations first agreed in December 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, to binding limits to their emissions, such as carbon dioxide from cars and power stations, by 2012, setting a target 5 per cent below 1990 levels.
Recent years have shown how vital the Buenos Aires deal is: 1998 is already certain to be the hottest year on record, beating the previous record by a considerable margin. The top five of the world's hottest recorded years all occurred in the 1990s.
After three days of continuous talks in Buenos Aires and a final marathon negotiating session lasting 21 hours, the agreement teetered on the brink of collapse when the developing countries, led by the Philippines, staged a 3am walk-out in a row over aid finance. But ministers from Western countries, led by Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, drew up a deal to get talks back on track.
"I had a bit of a shout," Mr Prescott said. "If it had fallen on that we would have despaired and all the goodwill and hope of Kyoto would have been dissipated. But as it is, we have maintained the momentum and the belief that nations can get together to solve this momentous problem." Mr Prescott was one of the Kyoto pact's principal architects.
The latest agreement gives the green light to the US, which has far and away the most CO2 emissions and the biggest reduction target, to buy up the reduced emissions of other countries as a way of meeting it. These purely notional, on-paper cut-backs are the price the US is demanding for its adherence to the Kyoto treaty.
A multi-billion-dollar clean energy investment programme for the poorer nations, known as the Clean Development Mechanism, will go ahead very soon, formally bringing developing countries into the fight against global warming for the first time.
But such were the complexities of the negotiations, and the many differences manifest between the US, Europe, the developing countries and, in particular, the leading oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, who are campaigning actively against any reduction in use of the oil they export, that no fewer than 142 issues were put off to be dealt with later.
Environmental pressure groups were left very disillusioned. "We have seen two weeks of political horse trading which has very little to do with the reality of global climate change already happening out there, which we have already seen with the weather extremes of the past year," said Dr Ute Collier, climate policy officer for The World Wide Fund for Nature. "There are no substantive decisions, just a technical work plan. I think what we have seen here is a very bad omen for the future of the negotiations."Reuse content