- Associated Press - Sunday, December 11, 2011

DURBAN, South Africa — A U.N. climate conference reached a hard-fought agreement Sunday on a far-reaching program meant to set a new course for the global fight against climate change.

The 194-party conference agreed to start negotiations on a new accord that would ensure that countries will be legally bound to carry out any pledges they make. It would take effect by 2020 at the latest.

The deal doesn’t explicitly compel any nation to take on emissions targets, although most emerging economies have volunteered to curb the growth of their emissions.

Currently, only industrial countries have legally binding emissions targets under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Those commitments expire next year, but they will be extended for at least another five years under the accord adopted Sunday - a key demand by developing countries seeking to preserve the only existing treaty regulating carbon emissions.

The proposed Durban Platform offered answers to problems that have bedeviled global-warming negotiations for years about sharing the responsibility for controlling carbon emissions and helping the world’s poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations cope with changing forces of nature.

The United States was a reluctant supporter, concerned about agreeing to join an international climate system that likely would find much opposition in Congress.

“This is a very significant package. None of us likes everything in it. Believe me, there is plenty the United States is not thrilled about,” said U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern.

But the package captured important advances that would be undone if it is rejected, he told the delegates.

Sunday’s deal also set up the bodies that will collect, govern and distribute tens of billions of dollars a year for poor countries.

Other documents in the package lay out rules for monitoring and verifying emissions reductions, protecting forests, transferring clean technologies to developing countries and scores of technical issues.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the deal represents “an important advance in our work on climate change.”

But the deal’s language left some analysts warning that the wording leaves huge loopholes for countries to avoid tying their emissions to legal constraints, and noted that there is no mention of penalties.

“They haven’t reached a real deal,” said Samantha Smith, of WWF International. “They watered things down so everyone could get on board.”

Environmentalists criticized the package - as did many developing countries in the debate - for failing to address what they called the most urgent issue, to move faster and deeper in cutting carbon emissions.