CANCUN, Mexico – Nearly 200 environment ministers and other delegates moved late Friday toward wrapping up an annual U.N. climate conference with a package of decisions on modest steps, including a fund to help poorer nations cope with global warming.
In a late-night open session, country after country endorsed the latest compromise texts to emerge from two-week-long talks that went virtually nonstop since Thursday, describing them as key to restoring momentum and trust in the U.N. climate negotiations.
"What we have now is a text that, while not perfect, is certainly a good basis for moving forward," said chief U.S. negotiator Todd Stern. His Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, sounded a similar note and added, "The negotiations in the future will continue to be difficult."
Those two nations, the world's biggest emitters, will be at the center of those future negotiations, as the Cancun talks, once again, did not take up proposals for a grand compact mandating deep cuts in global warming gases.
Underscoring what's at stake in the long-running climate talks, NASA reported that the January-November 2010 global temperatures were the warmest in the 131-year record. Its data indicated the year would likely end as the warmest on record, or tied with 2005 as the warmest.
Bolivia and Cuba criticized the draft accords, raising the possibility that one or both might block consensus agreement. But it remained to be seen whether their concerns could be allayed by modifying the text in further consultations early Saturday, and whether they would act to prevent adoption of the decisions.
The cross-cutting interests of rich and poor nations, tropical and temperate, oil producers, desperate islanders and comfortable continental powers, all combined once more to tie up the annual negotiating session of environment ministers past its 6 p.m. Friday scheduled finish.
After many hours behind closed doors at a sprawling beachside resort hotel, leaders of the negotiating groups submitted the latest, slimmed-down versions of the main proposed texts for review.
"We are almost through this process," Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, the conference president, told delegates.
Negotiators earlier reported progress on the key issue of the Green Climate Fund, which is to aid developing nations obtain clean-energy technology for cutting their own greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to potentially damaging climate change — by shifting agricultural practices, for example, and building seawalls against the rise of warming seas.
In the "Copenhagen Accord" that emerged from last year's climate summit in the Danish capital, richer nations promised $100 billion for such a fund by 2020.
"There is a consensus that we set up a climate fund," Bangladesh's state minister for environment, Mohammed Hasan Mahmud, reported Friday. Details of the fund's oversight were left to post-Cancun negotiations, and the eventual sources of the financing were not identified.
A U.N. advisory panel had suggested placing levies of some kind on the fuel or emissions of airlines and merchant shipping, but such a proposal was dropped during the negotiations here.
Mahmud lamented that once again a hoped-for overarching pact to slash global emissions was being deferred at least another year, to the 2011 conference in Durban, South Africa.
"I doubt if the Durban (conference) will deliver the desired level of results if the negotiations go the way we have been going through here," he said.
Bolivian chief negotiator Pablo Solon was more sharply critical of the eleventh hour proposed text: "We have before us a document of 'take it or take it.'"
Other issues that faced intense last-minute negotiation:
— Setting up a global structure to make it easier for developing nations to obtain patented technology for clean energy and climate adaptation.
— Pinning down more elements of a complex, controversial plan to compensate poorer nations for protecting their climate-friendly forests.
— Taking voluntary pledges of emissions controls made under the Copenhagen Accord by the U.S., China and other nations, and "anchoring" them in a Cancun document, giving them more formal U.N. status.
— Agreeing on methods for monitoring and verifying that developing nations are fulfilling those voluntary pledges.
U.N. officials had described these secondary items as "building blocks" to restore momentum to the U.N. process after the failure of last year's climate summit in Copenhagen to produce a long-anticipated global emissions-cutting pact.
In the 1992 U.N. climate treaty, the world's nations promised to do their best to rein in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases emitted by industry, transportation and agriculture. In the two decades since, the annual conferences' only big advance came in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, when parties agreed on modest mandatory reductions by richer nations.
But the U.S., alone in the industrial world, rejected the Kyoto Protocol, complaining it would hurt its economy and that such emerging economies as China and India should have taken on emissions obligations.
Since then China has replaced the U.S. as the world's biggest emitter, but it has resisted calls that it assume legally binding commitments — not to lower its emissions, but to restrain their growth.
Here at Cancun such issues came to a head, as Japan and Russia fought pressure to acknowledge in a final decision that they will commit to a second period of emissions reductions under Kyoto, whose current targets expire in 2012.
The Japanese complained that with the rise of China, India, Brazil and others, the 37 Kyoto industrial nations now account for only 27 percent of global greenhouse emissions. They want a new, legally binding pact obligating the U.S., China and other major emitters.
The upcoming takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives by the Republicans, many of whom dismiss strong scientific evidence of human-caused warming, rules out any carbon-capping legislation for at least two years, however.
While the decades-long talks stumble along, climate change moves ahead.
The atmosphere's concentration of carbon dioxide now stands at about 390 parts per million, up from 280 ppm before the industrial age. Scientists project average global temperatures, which rose 0.7 degrees C (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) in the 20th century, will jump by as much as 6.4 degrees C (11.5 degrees F) by 2100 if too little is done.
The U.N. Environment Program estimates the voluntary Copenhagen pledges, even if fulfilled, would go only 60 percent of the way toward keeping the temperature rise below a dangerous 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above preindustrial levels.
Oceans are rising at twice the rate of the 20th century, researchers say, and Pacific islanders report they're already losing shoreline and settlements to encroaching seas.
"It's worrying to imagine what will happen 10 years from now at this rate," said Bruno Sekoli of Lesotho, a spokesman for poorer nations.
"Climate change is a problem that has to be solved. There is no other way."
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report in Cancun.