Leading article: The dangers of no deal in Durban

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Amid the furore over the eurozone crisis and this week's make-or-break meeting in Brussels, another equally important summit is in danger of being forgotten.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Durban does not conclude until late tonight, so there is still at least the possibility of a constructive outcome. But progress is looking perilously uncertain, and the implications are even more devastating than the collapse of the eurozone, albeit at a slower pace.

There will, of course, be something from Durban, most likely a nuanced statement filled with aspiration but little more. That is not enough. What is needed is a global treaty, legally binding all countries to start reducing their carbon emissions. Without one, there is no realistic hope of keeping global warming within 2C, the threshold beyond which scientists forecast catastrophic environmental consequences.

European negotiators in Durban are pushing for just such a treaty, to be signed by 2015 and in place by 2020. But there appears to be little chance of success. Not only are talks on extending the existing Kyoto Protocol foundering, but fast-growing – and highly polluting – developing economies are refusing to shoulder any environmental burden.

The problem goes back to the original Kyoto agreement from 1997, which recognised that industrialised countries were largely responsible for global warming and exempted their less-developed counterparts. Back then, it made sense. But the world has changed dramatically since. Between them, China, India and the US now produce almost half of the world's annual carbon emissions. None is bound to reduce them: China and India because they were outside Kyoto in the first place; the US because it withdrew.

Without them, there can be no meaningful advance. And, in the absence of a deal, we face another decade of delay. But climate change will not wait. Global carbon emissions are wildly out of control, and our opportunities to remedy the situation rapidly dwindling. Time is running out. We must see progress in Durban.