The delegates of Bali have fiddled while the world continues to burn

If global temperatures rise by more than 2C, the climate is going to become extremely inhospitable to mankind

As expected, negotiations on the final day of the United Nations climate change summit in Bali have gone down to the wire. A scheme to save the remainder of the world's tropical forests by compensating poorer countries was agreed relatively early. So, too, was a clean technology transfer plan and a fund to facilitate adaptation in those nations most threatened by global warming.

But the sticking point was binding targets for emissions cuts. The European Union bloc pressed for the summit's final text to include a specific commitment that industrialised nations should cut their emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020. This was met with resistance from the United States. The US delegation disliked the numbers and wanted any targeted cuts to be voluntary. It is this issue that kept delegates at the conference hall for an extra day. At one point the EU even threatened to boycott a "major economies" meeting on climate change due to be hosted by President Bush next year unless the US softened its position.

Last night compromise seemed the most likely outcome. The summit was on the verge of accepting an agreement that includes no firm targets, but concedes that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be stabilised by the end of the next decade and that richer nations should play the major role in achieving this. It will also commit the 190 nations gathered in Bali to "further talks". It is difficult to know what is more depressing about all this wrangling: the continued resistance of the world's largest economy to serious measures to cut emissions, or the paltry ambitions of even the most progressive of the delegations at the conference.

The scientific consensus is that if global temperatures rise by more than 2C above their pre-industrial level, the global climate is going to become extremely inhospitable to mankind. Beyond 2C, the Greenland ice sheet could go into irreversible decline; billions would find their supplies under threat and global food supplies would be hit by drought. Yet according to the latest scientific projections, even with a 90 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050, the world would be likely to break the 2C barrier. And this takes no account of the possible "feedback" effects in the global climate system which could make the entire process of global warming even faster than feared.

To put it simply, the situation is worse than previously thought and the delegates at Bali, even those who are most alive to the imminence of this threat, are working on outdated projections. In an ideal world, these talks would have been about how we can reduce our emissions even more quickly. Instead, our leaders are squabbling about when exactly we should commence the process of bringing them down. All this also assumes that governments have the capacity to deliver on these promises. Despite the Kyoto targets, global emissions are now growing faster than at any time since the industrial revolution.

So what is the significance of Bali? Theclimate change campaigner and Nobel laureate, Al Gore, argued this week that delegates should accept compromise in order to keep the talks going. He pointed out that pushing ahead, even without firm targets, would enable a new US administration, one that takes the issue of climate change seriously, to sign up to a successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol in 2009. In other words: keep the show on the road and wait for President Bush to vacate theWhite House.

Perhaps Mr Gore is right. But even if the Democrats prevail in the US elections next year, the fundamental question grows ever more pressing: how much longer can we afford to wait?