By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters do not expect a legally-binding deal to tackle climate change at talks in South Africa in December, two leading climate envoys said on Wednesday.
U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern and European climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard played down the chance of a breakthrough after a meeting of the Major Economies Forum (MEF), an informal group of 17 countries including the world's top polluters, China and the United States.
"From what I've heard in these last two days, the conclusion must be that it is highly unlikely that the world will see a legally binding deal done in Durban," Hedegaard told reporters.
"Not that they do not think it's important -- but there is just this feeling that it's simply not doable for Durban."
It is not the first time doubts have been raised over the chance of an ambitious agreement in Durban, following on from modest progress in Cancun, Mexico last year, and Copenhagen the year before.
But the poorest nations, which are most vulnerable to climate change, are still clinging to the hope of moving beyond the existing voluntary accord.
"I think that there are different views about the sort of degree of necessity or not of a legally binding agreement," said Stern. "Our view in the U.S. is that it is not a necessary thing to happen right away."
Last year's Cancun meeting is widely regarded as having saved the often fraught negotiations from collapse.
Nations agreed curbs on the loss of tropical forests, schemes to transfer clean technology to poorer nations and help them adapt to climate change impacts, and a goal for rich countries to provide $100 billion a year in aid from 2020.
But it side-stepped tougher issues, such as whether to extend or replace the Kyoto Protocol, the current agreement to limit greenhouse gases which expires next year.
Hedegaard said the EU would push for the Durban talks to make progress on tackling the emissions from ships and planes.
"It is not enough for Durban just to implement what was agreed in Cancun," she said. "Inclusion of shipping and aviation -- these kind of topics we will also push for."
Hedegaard said she would prefer the issue of shipping emissions to be tackled by the U.N.'s International Maritime Organization (IMO), but would not wait forever.
"Since 1997, IMO has had this task, without delivering, and that's why we are very clearly signaling we are losing patience," she said.
(Reporting by Pete Harrison; Editing by Sophie Hares)