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African countries stage three-hour boycott in Copenhagen

The climate-change talks lurched from stalemate to near disaster after the African states' battle with the rich countries brought negotiations to a standstill for much of the crucial summit day.

The African countries boycotted the talks for about three hours on Monday, only four days before more than 100 heads of state and government, including U.S. President Barack Obama, arrive in Copenhagen to endorse a new climate-change deal. Several African ministers walked out of the closed-door meeting.

As the talks bogged down, environment ministers from several countries warned that time was running out for a final draft deal before world leaders arrive. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is reportedly due to arrive in Copenhagen on Tuesday, two days ahead of schedule, in an effort to break the logjam.

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"What we cannot do is leave a whole slew of issues to the leaders," Ed Miliband, Britain's climate change secretary, said at a news conference. "Leaders always have a very important role in this. But frankly it's also up to negotiators and ministers to get our act together and resolve outstanding issues."

Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice said he was still "hopeful" that a deal could be reached by the end of the week, but called the disruption "not very helpful … We lost some important time today."

"This is what happens at these meetings," said Alden Meyer, the American energy economist who is director of strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I suspect you'll see a narrowing of the gap in the next couple of days. There has to be some sort of agreement on Friday."

Even when negotiations resumed, it became apparent the rift between the rich and poor countries has the potential to wreck the summit.

"This was meant to be a wakeup call to the developed world," said WWF Canada president Gerald Butts, referring to the African negotiations boycott. "The world's poorest countries are begging the richest to make the first move."

The tension between the developed and the developing world focuses on two crucial areas - funding to allow poor countries to fight the effects of climate change and the life or death of the Kyoto Protocol. Monday's disruption was triggered by Kyoto - the binding, and only, international climate change treaty. It came into effect in 1997; Canada ratified it in 2002, under Jean Chrétien's Liberal government.

Developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, want Kyoto left intact - it is due to expire in 2012 unless it is extended - because it commits 37 rich countries to substantial emission cuts. Poor countries are not under the same obligation.

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The rich countries' position is that Kyoto should be replaced with a new agreement that covers all 192 countries at the summit, notably China, whose carbon-dioxide output now exceeds that of the United States.

Canada has been one of the most forceful proponents of replacing Kyoto, partly because it has no chance of meeting its Kyoto reduction target.

The Copenhagen talks are moving on what negotiators call "twin tracks" - one to modify or extend Kyoto, the other to create new, long-term emission-reduction targets and funding for climate-change adaptation and mitigation (known as the long-term co-operation action agreement, or LCA). The United States is not involved in the Kyoto talks because it never ratified the treaty and is not bound by its targets.

The developing countries (represented by the G77 and China) are fighting hard to keep Kyoto alive. "When you have a train moving on a twin track and you remove one of the rails, you have catastrophe," Victor Fodeke, head of the special climate-change unit at Nigeria's Ministry of Environment, told reporters. "It is an injustice to change the rules at the end of the game."

Bernarditas Muller, the co-ordinator for the G77 countries on the LCA track, said Monday night that it was a bad day for the developing world. "Nothing was moving on the Kyoto Protocol," she said. "We cannot walk out but we are not meeting the kind of engagement we need."

Negotiations on funding appear to have made little progress. So far the rich countries have proposed a $10-billion (U.S.) a year "Quick Start" climate-change fund for poor countries. It would be in place next year and finish in 2012. Many countries and international institutions, including the World Bank, agree that $100-billion (U.S.) year is the amount needed to help the developing world fight climate change over the long term. "I think the long-term finance is a very important part of the agreement," Britain's Mr. Miliband said.

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European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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