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Female protesters wear flower costumes near the U.S. Embassy in Manila on November 24, 2011, days before the 17th Conference of Parties and the 7th Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Durban, South Africa

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images/Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

With the Kyoto Protocol on the verge of death, gloomy negotiators are gathering in South Africa Monday in an attempt to salvage a vague "road map" for a future climate agreement in 2020 or later.

Without hope for a binding agreement in the near future, the United Nations climate conference is likely to resign itself to at least an eight-year gap between the expiry of Kyoto next year and a possible future treaty on cutting greenhouse gases. In the interim, the world would be governed by voluntary pledges – or "climate anarchy" as some environmentalists call it.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet have already decided to withdraw formally from the protocol but won't announce it until Dec. 23, after the Durban conference ends, CTV News reported Sunday night.

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The European Union and smaller developing nations will continue to push for a legally binding agreement to replace the Kyoto treaty, but after scant progress in negotiations over the past two years there is mounting evidence that Kyoto will instead be followed by a decade of legal vacuum.

Christiana Figueres, head of the UN negotiating team, admitted on Sunday that keeping Kyoto alive is "a tall order" and will be the most difficult challenge at the talks in the seaside city of Durban, which begin Monday and continue for two weeks.

"There is a recognition that Kyoto isn't fair," Canada's Environment Minister Peter Kent told The Canadian Press before leaving for Durban. "And it's certainly not effective."

Reports this weekend suggested that a growing number of nations are willing to delay the climate-treaty negotiations until 2015, meaning that a new binding treaty could not be finalized until 2020 and would not take effect until years later.

The governments of Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States already favour such a delay. But now the governments of Brazil and India are taking the same position, according to the reports.

With a binding treaty now seeming impossible at Durban, negotiators may focus instead on a slightly easier target: a planned $100-billion fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change. Many countries, including Canada, are pledging substantial sums of money for the Green Climate Fund – but there are still serious disputes on how the fund would work, who would control it, and what mechanisms would be used to generate money for the fund.

Negotiators believe they can make progress at Durban in setting the rules and mechanisms for the fund, which aims to provide $100-billion annually to developing nations by 2020. But there is still no consensus on where the money would come from. And in recent negotiations, the United States and Saudi Arabia were reportedly blocking any agreement, with Washington pushing for greater private-sector involvement in the fund.

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Environmentalists are increasingly worried that Durban will be a failure. "Comparing the frustratingly slow pace of international negotiations on climate change against the ever-increasing urgency of climate-change science, it is hard to be optimistic," said a briefing note by the Pembina Institute, a Canadian-based energy-research think tank. "The level of ambition currently being demonstrated puts the world on track for irreversible and catastrophic climate change."

If the talks fail, the world is unlikely to meet the current goal of limiting the rise in the average global temperature to 2C. And if there is no agreement on containing greenhouse gases, a new study suggests that the average global temperature could rise by 3 to 6 degrees by the end of the century, which would melt glaciers, cause a rise in the sea level, and produce an unprecedented increase in the number and severity of extreme weather events.

"It might also exceed some critical 'tipping-points,' causing dramatic natural changes that could have catastrophic or irreversible outcomes for natural systems and society," according to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Another report, by the UN climate change panel, warned that rising global temperatures are likely to create more heat waves and raise the risk of more floods, heavier rainfall, stronger cyclones and worse droughts for much of the world. Some regions could become uninhabitable, it says.

The UN weather agency, meanwhile, reported last week that carbon dioxide concentrations in the world's atmosphere have reached a record level – almost 40 per cent higher than in the 18th century when industrialization began. And a report by Oxfam concluded that global warming is causing drought and driving up food prices in the developing world.

About 15,000 people are attending the Durban conference, including delegates from about 190 countries. The annual climate-change summit has become a jamboree of politicians, celebrities, environmentalists, bureaucrats, protesters and business leaders, all competing for attention with speeches, photo opportunities, street demonstrations and exhibitions of the latest green technologies.

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