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Deal looks distant as climate talks race against clock

Deep into an unscheduled 13th day, UN climate talks on Saturday struggled to agree on a proposed pact to roll back carbon emissions in a key decade for fighting global warming.

But chances of a deal receded, given the pressure of the clock and an agonisingly slow process to untangle a web of issues, France and Germany said.

“We are now in an extremely critical situation because of time,” German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen told journalists after all-night wrangling.

“The delay is very critical. … It is very doubtful whether we will succeed.”

His French counterpart, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, added: “We are in the worst situation, that of failure because of time management.”

On the table at the yearly marathon of the 194-nation UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is a master plan for strengthening action against greenhouse gases blamed for damaging Earth’s weather systems.

Pushed by the European Union, the scheme would assure the survival of the Kyoto Protocol, a landmark treaty defended by poor countries but increasingly dismissed by rich ones as unfair.

By 2015, according to the EU scheme, UNFCCC parties would reach a legally binding agreement that, for the first time, would bring all economies, including the emerging giants and the United States, under the same roof.

But a cluster of other problems, including discord over a proposed Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable countries, conspired to make deal-making in Saturday’s final hours even more difficult.

With Durban’s International Convention Centre set to close on Saturday evening, time pressures mounted — and memories revived of the Copenhagen Summit just two years earlier.

Intended to set the seal on a historic treaty, the summit nearly collapsed in finger-pointing. Face was saved in the final hours by a lowest-common-denominator deal put together in the back rooms.

Some European delegates feared the Durban talks were in such a mess that conference chair South Africa might declare a suspension. A follow-up meeting would then be staged next year to try to reach consensus.

But UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres ruled this out.

“Today is the last day of the conference. … All of these unhealthy speculations do not help the process,” she told AFP.

An informal coalition of nearly 90 African countries, least developed nations and small island states, along with emerging giants Brazil and South Africa, rallied behind Europe’s plan for a “roadmap.”

This left China, the United States and India to declare their hands.

Under the deal, the EU would keep the Kyoto Protocol alive after its first round of targeted carbon pledges expires at the end of 2012.

Canada, Japan and Russia have already refused to sign up for fresh vows, saying this is unfair so long as far bigger emitters have no such binds.

In exchange, the UNFCCC nations would mandate talks for a new pact, due to be concluded in 2015, that would draw all major emitters into a single, legally binding framework.

What the pact would do, when it would take effect and the sharing-out of emissions curbs are among the many questions that would be hammered out in the pre-2015 talks.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the proposed compromise was just the two words “legally binding.”

This terminology is perceived as political dynamite in Washington, given the powerful conservative currents in Congress and presidential elections that lie less than a year away.

Research presented at Durban said that voluntary carbon pledges under the so-called Copenhagen Accord are falling far short of the goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

In fact, the world is on track for 3.5 C (6.3 F), a likely recipe for droughts, floods, storms and rising sea levels that will threaten tens of millions, according to German data.