DURBAN, South Africa -- Amid pleas for action and ambition by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as African and small island nation presidents, countries here are playing a game of brinkmanship over the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and waiting to see who will blink first.
Overnight, diplomats at the U.N. climate negotiations debated four possible directions the world's leading greenhouse gas polluters might cut carbon in future years -- an issue that has become intimately linked to whether the Kyoto Protocol lives or dies.
Of those, the U.S. is backing what many here feel is the least ambitious outcome: focusing almost exclusively on bringing the Cancun Agreements negotiated last year to life. The agreements set emission targets from major emitters and call for a reporting system to verify progress and launch of a Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable countries.
The option makes no move toward an ultimate legally binding agreement on cutting emissions.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, U.S. Envoy Todd Stern maintained he does not object to discussing a process for addressing emissions after 2020, the year in which the Cancun Agreement commitments end.
But he repeated his insistence that any future legal treaty also bind major emerging economies like China to the same rules. And, unlike the current Kyoto Protocol to which the U.S. is not a party, major economies must agree to cut emissions unilaterally without the promise of money first.
"I don't think the Kyoto architecture ... is a tenable architecture for the future," Stern said. Meanwhile, he argued, the importance of the Cancun Agreements -- which cover 80 percent of the world's emissions --seem to be getting short shrift in Durban.
BASIC members are split
Meanwhile, other countries continued to battle over three other options. The maneuvering appears to have split the bloc of major developing nations of Brazil, South Africa, India and China. It is known here as BASIC.
South Africa has thrown its weight behind the most ambitious of the possibilities: a legal agreement that would come into force by or before 2015 and include all major emitters.
China, India and Brazil, however, appear to be backing a third option that gives little guidance on the future legal form of an agreement but simply calls for continuing a 2007 agreement known as the Bali Roadmap. That document enshrines notions developing countries hold dear. One is that their emission cuts must be voluntary and only in exchange for funding.
A final option punts the decision about a legally binding agreement down the road one more year.
China has outlined five conditions that must be met before it would join a legally binding arrangement, which include upholding the distinction between developed and developing nations. India has said outright it does not want to see a mandate for a legally binding agreement out of Durban, and Brazil has been vague.
At a press conference yesterday, the BASIC countries -- which have become the semi-official big brothers of developing nations at these climate talks -- played down their differences.
"There are differences ... but I don't think those differences should block the way forward," said Xie Zhenhua, vice president of China's National Development and Reform Commission.
All four said they want to see countries agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.
Can the U.S. make a deal with China?
The first phase of the treaty ends next year. Japan, Russia and Canada already have said they will not enter new targets under a second phase because Kyoto does not include major emitters like the United States and China. Europe has made its decision to join conditional on an agreement in Durban toward a process for a new legally binding arrangement that includes all major polluters.
Developing countries have been bristling at the demand, with some accusing the E.U. of taking Kyoto hostage.
"Developing countries should not be asked to make a payment every time a commitment comes due on the part of developed countries," said Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan.
Among American environmental groups and international activists, anger and frustration with the U.S. is growing.
While some American activists said they understand the American negotiators' opposition to making any agreement on the national stage that Congress couldn't accept, they argued for more ambition.
"I think that we should not go to our lowest common denominator," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
"Because we somehow have a cantankerous House of Representatives, and we're not going to move forward on climate policy, therefore we really can't commit to anything, is not the right answer," he said. "I think its time to have this argument -- to have this robust fight -- over the U.S. as a leader in fighting the worldwide climate problem."
Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director at the World Resources Institute, criticized the U.S. team's quick dismissal of the hints China offered of being open to a legally binding agreement.
"If the U.S. really wants a binding treaty, they should be wooing China. I would hope that the U.S. would be wanting that, rather than throwing cold water on it," she said.
Meanwhile, Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser to the Bipartisan Policy Center in the U.S., said what plays badly in the halls of Durban's conference center could play well with Congress.
If the Durban conference ends with the Stern blocking immediate prospects for a legally binding agreement that doesn't clearly include China, he said, "That's a great political outcome for the U.S."
"For domestic political purposes, I'm not sure the administration is at all uncomfortable being blamed by the Europeans for stalling a legally binding negotiation," he said.