Michael McCarthy: Kyoto clash threatens to be a deal breaker

The richer nations want a new agreement to bring the US back into the process

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Two radically different views of how the world should organise its future response to global warming are beginning to clash at the Copenhagen climate conference and the disagreement may be the obstacle on which the meeting founders.

The fault line runs between the rich developed nations, including the US and Britain, and the leading developing nations such as China and India, and the argument centres around the current climate treaty, the Kyoto protocol.

In short, China, India and many other developing countries want to keep it; Britain, the US and the developed world want it to be superseded by a comprehensive new agreement. Although this may seem a mere bureaucratic dispute, it has become clear in the last 24 hours that it is not only serious but a potential deal-breaker and it has already begun to enmesh the conference work in delay. Ultimately, it may only be resolved by heads of state and government in person, when they attend the closing of the meeting at the end of next week.

The Kyoto protocol, signed in 1997, strongly binds the rich countries to make cuts in their carbon emissions but does not make the same demand of the developing nations, from China and India down. For both these reasons, the developing nations are very attached to it.

The developed world, however, would like a wholly new agreement, which would bring the US back into the process, missing since George Bush withdrew from Kyoto in 2001, and would also commit China, India and other developing countries to begin making cuts.

Not all the developing countries are against a new agreement. Tuvalu, the tiny Polynesian island state which is imminently threatened by sea-level rise, would like a new deal because it feels all countries, including China and India as well as the US, should be contributing to the fight against climate change. But twice when Tuvalu tried to get a new agreement discussed – on Wednesday and yesterday – it was blocked by China, India and Saudi Arabia, and the full meetings were suspended and have not yet resumed.

Although sets of talks are continuing in the wings, the delay in the main meeting is beginning to concern negotiators, as in less than a week world leaders arrive, supposedly to agree a deal. Developed country officials appear to have been taken aback by the vehemence with which the emerging economies are refusing to countenance a switch from Kyoto to a new "Copenhagen agreement." But their refusal currently seems rock solid.

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