In a tumultuous, overtime finale that capped two weeks of intense talks, ministers from more than 180 countries headed home this weekend with a framework for negotiating a new global-warming agreement by 2009.
In the process, the talks appear to have sealed a major shift in the geopolitics of climate change.
In part, this change has come about because the US is now more intensely involved in talks than at any other time during the Bush administration, says Artur Runge-Metzger, who heads the European Commission's climate-change programs.
But the big shift has come from developing countries, known collectively as "the G-77 plus China."
Led by China, South Africa, Brazil, and other rainforest-heavy countries, the group is beginning to flex its muscles in ways observers here have not seen before.
In the past, analysts say, industrial countries cut the deals and essentially presented developing countries with the results. No longer. Nowhere was the change more apparent than on the unplanned 13th day of the conference.
At issue was wording on adaptation, technology transfer, and financing. Developing countries offered text changes that the US had opposed throughout the talks on the floor of the final plenary session.
When the head of the US negotiating team, Paula Dobriansky, took the floor, she said the US couldn't support the change. Since decisions here must be made by consensus, it looked as if the US would derail the process.
Developing countries were already fuming that, due to US insistence, the road map was confining scientific recommendations on necessary emission cuts by industrial countries to a footnote.
They also took umbrage at a comment made by a senior member of the US delegation at a press briefing Wednesday. James Connaughton, head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters that "the US will lead" on global climate change, "but leadership requires that others fall in line and follow."
Dr. Dobriansky's "no" met with a chorus of boos. Other developing countries took the floor to support the change and roundly criticize the US.
South Africa said that the US position "was most unwelcome and without any basis." Then Kevin Conrad, who headed Papua-New Guinea's delegation, rose and turned Mr. Connaughton's comment on its head.
"We seek your leadership," he said. "But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way."
Meanwhile, Europe threw its support behind the change. Japan remained noncommittal. Canada and Australia, which ratified the Kyoto treaty earlier this month, sat silent. The last three had supported the US position for much of the talks.
Confronted with the prospect of overwhelming isolation, Dobriansky relented, saying, "We will join the consensus."
Many longtime observers say it was the most stunning reversal they had ever seen at one of these meetings. And it showed that the old north-south divide at climate talks may be eroding, given the alliance between Europe and the G-77 plus China on the issue.
"They caved!" said an astonished Philip Clapp, deputy managing director of the Pew Environment Group, based in Washington. He suggests that in the end, the White House had too much to lose. A US-triggered collapse of talks here would likely have led European countries and others to boycott President Bush's Major Economies Meetings next year, Mr. Clapp says. If that were to fail, he continues, the administration risked handing Democratic candidates a powerful twofold criticism ahead of the 2008 elections: They could claim that Republicans stymied the UN process and that the president's own efforts had failed.
Bargaining on emission cuts
Hard bargaining over the past two weeks, as well as the last-minute theatrics, point to the tough bargaining that lies ahead. The aim is to approve a new agreement at talks in Copenhagen,Denmark in 2009 and get enough countries to ratify it so it can take over in 2013, when the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period expires.
The road map also sets out guidelines for working on issues dear to developing countries – adaptation, transfer of technologies that will help their economies grow without loading up the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and, finally, the setting up of financial arrangements to help pay for both of these. And key for industrial countries, the road map aims to look for ways to engage developing countries more fully in greenhouse-gas mitigation efforts.
But it emphasizes, albeit in a footnote, the magnitude of the challenge. According to the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in order to hold global warming to about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, industrial countries must make a downpayment by reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Developing countries will have to achieve a substantial but unquantified "deviation" from their business-as-usual emissions by then as well. To stay on track, industrial-country emissions will have to fall by between 80 and 95 percent by 2050. Developing countries will have to continue to ramp up their emission-reduction efforts during the same period.
The US had strongly objected to including those numbers in the road map's nonbinding preamble. As a compromise, a footnote refers to the volumes and page numbers where these figures appear in the IPCC reports.
Tackling adaptation early on
Since 2000, global-emission rates have outstripped all but the highest IPCC projections. Some global-warming effects are showing up earlier than models have projected. And energy demand, particularly in developing countries, is burgeoning.
As negotiators begin their work on a new agreement, the order in which they tackle issues will be important, says Yvo de Boer, who heads the office overseeing the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In the first year, he says, it might be most useful to focus on adaptation and on what countries can do "from a technical point of view," to reduce emissions. "Once you know what you can do, in the second year you can focus on the technology you need to make that happen and the money that you are going to need to pay for the technology."
Putting the first-year focus on adaptation and mitigation, he continues, allows a new US president to enter the process with a better idea of what's possible as long as the technology and financing are available. Setting emission targets would cap the process.