As a global climate conference enters the home stretch, it's likely that the 194 nations represented will reach some consensus on how to respond to the emissions that are warming the planet. But details on how tough those measures will be remain buried under a sea of competing national interests and economic worries.
The talks, due to wrap up Friday or early Saturday, are likely to finalize a massive fund to help poor countries cope with climate change. And indications are strong the conference could end with an agreement to begin the next phase in a battle to control heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
But Durban could also be the place where the only treaty that has governed carbon emissions from the industrial world, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, breaks down, several years before anything is likely to replace it.
The slow pace of dealing with the core problem of rising temperatures is dispiriting delegates from small islands on the edge of survival, and from activists impatient with the familiar posturing of climate negotiations.
"Waiting is going to be a disaster for us," said Samuela Alivereti Saumatua, Fiji's environment minister, who said the Pacific island this month relocated its first coastal village because of climate-related flooding and unseasonable cyclones.
"We have cyclones now at any time of the year. We have flash floods in the coastal areas. Water supply is being salinated. Food security is going to be a problem. We are desperately looking at how we will deal with the situation," he told reporters.
The conference in this coastal city along the Indian Ocean began Nov. 28. It is the latest meeting to seek incremental steps after attempts were abandoned two years ago to reach a global agreement on reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Much of the debate centered on a demand by industrial countries, led by the European Union, to revise the 20-year-old division of the world into rich and poor nations with two levels of responsibility: Rich countries are legally bound to reduce carbon emissions while developing countries take voluntary actions.
"This is the main issue. I don't know how it's going to be resolved," said Argentine Ambassador Sylvia Merega, who leads the 132-nation group known as G77 and China.
The EU won an endorsement from an alliance of small islands and the world's poorest countries — about 120 nations altogether — for its proposal to start negotiations now on a deal to take effect after 2020. Under the EU proposal, all countries would be equally accountable for their global-warming actions. The EU later announced that Brazil — a major power in the developing world — also was lining up with its proposal.
The European Union has said it will not renew its emissions reduction pledges, which expire in one year, unless all countries agree to launch negotiations on a new treaty that would equally oblige all countries — including the world's two largest polluters the United States and China — to control their emissions. The U.S. never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, though it has made voluntary efforts to reduce emissions.
The EU's failure to commit to another five-year reduction period would leave the landmark agreement in place, but gutted of its most important element, and would surely lead to Durban being branded as the protocol's burial ground.
Both China and the U.S. said they would be amenable to the EU proposal, but each attached riders that appeared to hobble its prospects for unanimous acceptance.
The United States, with its eye on Congress that is generally seen as hostile on the climate issue, is concerned about conceding any competitive business advantage to China. Beijing, too, is resisting the notion that it has become a developed country on a par with the U.S. or Europe, saying it still has hundreds of millions of impoverished people.
Activists in Durban have expressed their anger at the U.S. and other countries in many ways.
An American college student was ejected from the conference Thursday after disrupting a speech by U.S. delegate Todd Stern. Police escorted the student, Abigail Borah, 21, from the cavernous plenary of the conference as delegates applauded her removal.
Before she was seized, Borah began reading a speech accusing the U.S. of stonewalling an agreement, but Stern denied that.
"I've heard this from everywhere from ministers to press reports to the very sincere and passionate young woman who was in the hall when I was giving my remarks. I just wanted to be on the record as saying that, that's just a mistake. It is not true," he told reporters later.
A day earlier, six Canadians were thrown out for a similar protest against Canada's Environment Minister Peter Kent.
At a separate meeting Thursday attended by South African President Jacob Zuma, scuffles broke out between his supporters and environmentalists holding up posters reading, "Zuma stand with Africa, not with USA," and "Zuma don't let Africa fry."
Negotiations to provide climate aid for poor countries are less sensitive than talks over mandatory emissions reductions, but even they have proved difficult thanks to the global financial crisis. Some nations are concerned that the envisioned aid, scaling up from $10 billion a year now to $100 billion annually in 2020, will have trouble raising donations from wealthier governments.
"In a time of constraints, in a time of crisis, in a time of tough budgets, people are saying that charity starts at home, that we cannot deal with something noble but medium and long-term like the environment," said Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an organization of 34 Western countries.
Critical progress has been made on the structure and governance of the Green Climate Fund, which will handle most of the money.
"It's an area actually which is among the most advanced in the negotiations," said Stern, the chief U.S. negotiator. "I don't have any reason to think that that's not going to conclude."