DURBAN, South Africa – A marathon UN climate conference Sunday approved a roadmap towards an accord that for the first time will bring all major greenhouse-gas emitters under a single legal roof.
If approved as scheduled in 2015, the pact will be operational from 2020 and become the prime weapon in the fight against climate change.
Greenpeace, however, lamented the deal as a victory for polluters over people.
It was reached after nearly 14 days of talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The forum also launched a “Green Climate Fund” to help channel up to 100 billion dollars a year in aid to poor, vulnerable countries by 2020, an initiative born under the 2009 Copenhagen Summit.
“I believe that what we have achieved in Durban will play a central role in saving tomorrow, today,” declared South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who chaired the talks.
Approval came after two and a half days of round-the-clock wrangling among 194 nations.
The talks should have ended Friday but wrapped up in the dawn light of Sunday amid scenes of exhaustion and shredded nerves.
And the often-stormy exchanges reflected concerns among many countries over the cost of making energy efficiencies and switching to clean renewable sources at a time of belt-tightening.
UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican, was exultant.
Citing the words of Nelson Mandela, she said on Twitter: “In honour of Mandela: It always seems impossible until it is done. And it is done!”
“I think in the end it ended up quite well,” said U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern.
“The first time you will see developing countries agreeing, essentially, to be bound by a legal agreement.”
The European Union hailed the outcome as a “historic breakthrough”
“Where the (1997) Kyoto (protocol) divides the world into two categories, we will now get a system that reflects the reality of today’s mutually interdependent world,” Connie Hedegaard, the EU commissioner for climate action, said in the statement.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed what he called the “significant” breakthrough that “will guide global efforts to address the causes and impacts of climate change.”
French Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bernard Valero said the deal was an “important compromise that saves our ambitions for a global and effective agreement against climate warming.”
South African President Jacob Zuma said he was “elated” with what he termed a “coup for Africa,” adding: “Issues that had taken so long to resolve have been resolved on our soil.”
But the environmental group Greenpeace said the deal was too porous and could spell climate disaster.
“The grim news is that the blockers led by the U.S. have succeeded in inserting a vital get-out clause that could easily prevent the next big climate deal being legally binding. If that loophole is exploited it could be a disaster,” said Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo.
In the run-up to the conference, scientists pounded out loud warnings, saying future generations would pay the bill for foot-dragging.
Current measures to tackle carbon emissions are falling far short of the goal of limiting warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
According to research presented by German scientists, the world is on track for a 3.5 C (6.3 F) rise, spelling worsening droughts, floods, storms and rising sea levels for tens of millions of people.
The European Union (EU) led the charge in Durban, pushing for the “roadmap” in exchange for renewing its pledges to the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty deemed iconic by developing countries but increasingly dismissed by rich ones as out of date.
Kyoto’s first roster of legally-binding carbon curbs expires at the end of 2012.
The EU made the pledge to help assemble a coalition of developing and small island states – together accounting for nearly two-thirds of the world’s nations – that lobbied China, the United States and India to support the quest.
China and India have become huge emitters of carbon over the last half-dozen years but do not have Kyoto constraints as they are developing countries.
The United States, the world’s no. 2 source of man-made carbon, also has no legal curbs as it refused in 2001 to ratify Kyoto.
The key to the Durban deal lay in overcoming the opposition of the Big Three by crafting a vague text about what the pact will be – essentially reassuring them that the price will not be unaffordable.
The final text said parties would “develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force.”
That compromise averted the use of “legally binding,” likely to trigger a backlash among the conservative right in the United States during a presidential election year.