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With a day left, climate talks grapple for breakthrough

World climate talks searched on Thursday for a diplomatic charm to coax China, the United States and Europe towards a historic compromise on tackling global warming by Friday’s close.

Delegates saw encouraging progress on the architecture of a “Green Climate Fund” that by 2020 would catalyse up to 100 billion dollars a year in aid to poor countries.

But the toughest issue — agreeing a path for taming carbon emissions — remained deadlocked.

“It would seem that the negotiations are moving around in circles,” complained Grenada’s environment minister, Karl Hood, chairing the bloc of small island states exposed to rising seas.

“Why are we here? Is it just for vacation?”

The 12-day talks are the annual get-together of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a child of the 1992 Rio Summit.

But the main source of climate-altering greenhouse gases is cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, which are vital for the world’s economy.

As a result, the forum is struggling to make headway, even as scientists say only a few years are left before emissions must peak and then go swiftly into reverse.

The conference lurched into higher gear at ministerial level on Tuesday, leaving four days in which to paste together a 194-nation compromise.

South Africa set up informal groups on five of the biggest and thorniest issues, but some delegates fretted over the ticking of the clock.

“There’s no buzz here. Things are moving very, very slowly,” said a European, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Chances of a deal hinge on the Kyoto Protocol, the UNFCCC’s cornerstone achievement.

Kyoto is the only treaty that stipulates legally-binding curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions, although critics say its format is deeply flawed.

These constraints only apply to rich countries that have ratified it — thus it leaves out the United States, which abandoned the Protocol in 2001 — nor do they concern developing countries, on the grounds of their relative poverty.

For these countries Kyoto has iconic value, representing rich countries’ historic responsibility for climate change.

But the treaty could be left in limbo at the end of 2012.

Canada, Russia and Japan have refused to sign on for fresh commitments beyond this date, given that emerging giants and the United States, accounting for the vast majority of greenhouse-gas emissions, have no legal binds.

Tosi Mpanu Mpanu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, chairing the 54-country African Group, lashed the rich countries for rushing for the exit.

“I believe that they will actually be violating or not respecting the commitments that they took, an acceptance of responsibilities that was then ratified through their legislative bodies,” he said.

“Take for example Japan, which is a country that has a very very long history, an ancient history that we all admire because of strong values such as honour. We are noticing that Japan is getting ready to dishonour an agreement that bears the name of its historical capital.”

That leaves Europe, once more, in the role of Kyoto’s champion.

The European Union (EU) has promised to endorse a second round of pledges, but only if big emitters, led by China and the United States, back a “roadmap” leading to a new, legally binding treaty for everyone.

US chief delegate Todd Stern said Washington was not against a legally-binding accord.

But he said the best gains came from pragmatic advances, such as the Green Climate Fund, that were launched at the stormy 2009 Copenhagen Summit and endorsed last year in Cancun, Mexico.

He threw back accusations that the United States was hoping to delay a deal until the next decade.

“What the US has been going over the last two years, with all due respect, has been showing the leadership necessary to drag this process into the 21st century,” Stern told reporters.