By David Stanway
BEIJING (Reuters) - Global climate talks in South Africa next month will not produce a "big bang" capable of producing a new and binding pact to slash greenhouse gases, but steady progress could be made, a senior European climate official said on Tuesday.
Jos Delbeke, director general for climate action at the European Commission, told a news briefing in Beijing that he had no illusions about the challenges facing negotiators during the next round of talks in Durban, but said he was optimistic that a "step by step" approach could seal a global compact by 2014-5.
"I think if people are expecting a big bang, that is not on the cards," he said.
"Even if we do not have a big bang at Durban, we have the opportunity to make operational steps that are going to turn out to be very important for the elaboration of a new comprehensive regime."
After the disappointments of Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010, the latest round of discussions to extend the Kyoto Protocol will take place in November, and Delbeke said negotiators had already shed the illusion that a deal could be sealed in one easy step.
The first phase of the Kyoto agreement will expire at the end of 2012, but with most of the world preoccupied with reviving the economy and handling the European sovereign debt crisis, few expect any breakthroughs.
Media reports have suggested that big greenhouse gas producers like Japan and Canada would not even participate in the second phase of Kyoto, which Delbeke said he "deplored."
"I think in reality what may happen is that the Europeans will pronounce themselves politically in favor of the Kyoto Protocol but that they will only go for ratification of the agreement if other parties join the club and undertake action."
Delbeke said beyond the challenges of signing a new global deal, incremental progress was likely to be seen on technological cooperation, as well as issues like adaptation to climate change and monitoring emissions.
China has been the biggest beneficiary of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a Kyoto Protocol scheme that allows industrialized countries to meet their CO2 reduction targets by purchasing "certified emission reductions" or CERs from low-carbon projects launched in developing nations.
But the EU, the biggest buyer of CERs, has said it will not accept CERs generated by Chinese projects once the current phase of its Emissions Trading Scheme ends in 2012, though projects already registered will remain valid.
"Our ministers last week came together and they said they remain open to continue the Kyoto Protocol but there are a number of conditions attached to it," said Delbeke.
"One of them is the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol needs to be improved. Another is that many more players have to join in."
With the EU committed to bringing the benefits of the mechanism to least developed countries, China will need to negotiate a separate bilateral deal with Europe if it wants to continue supplying carbon credits to Europe after 2012.
But that is likely to need stronger commitments to reduce absolute levels of greenhouse gas, including "sectoral" programmes that will force entire industries rather than individual projects to cut their emissions.
China, for its part, is still committed to the Kyoto principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" which puts most of the responsibility for cutting emissions on the shoulders of developed nations.
The EU has been in discussions with potential partner countries but Delbeke wouldn't be drawn on whether talks with China were making progress.
"We have had quite a number of discussions -- it is about improving the CDM and, as far as we are concerned, opening up a new sector-based mechanism," said Delbeke.
He said talks were at an early stage and the important issue was ensuring that credits generated from sectoral schemes were recognized by the United Nations.
"I think it is fair to say that before such credits become available, we still will need some time because the clarity on sectoral mechanisms is not yet there, and it has to be implemented, and the credits have to be generated. It is not something that is going to happen on January 1, 2013."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)