The top U.N. climate official said Saturday she is confident industrial countries will renew their pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions after their current commitments expire next year.
Further commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an unshakable demand by poor countries, would avert a feared derailment of U.N. negotiations, but would mark little advancement toward the goal of a rapid and steep drop in worldwide carbon emissions blamed for climate change.
The protocol's future has been in doubt because rich countries have conditioned its continuation on an agreement by nations such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa to also accept binding emissions targets for themselves in the future.
"Countries are here these two weeks exactly talking about how they are going to go into a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol," U.N. official Christiana Figueres told The Associated Press.
"The discussion this week is not about the 'if,' it's about the 'how.' That doesn't mean that we are out of the thick of it," she said. Delegates are discussing participation, the legal form of the rules and all of the conditions that will define the second commitment period, she said.
Figueres, who is executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, spoke to AP to mark the halfway point of the two-week meeting in South Africa's eastern city of Durban.
Conference chairmen were also compiling the first draft of an agreement that will be given to government ministers arriving next week for the final four days of talks. Among them are 12 heads of state or government and ministers from more than 130 nations.
Outside the conference hall, several thousand activists, South African village women, and trade union members paraded through this port city for a march billed as a "global day of protest."
"It's all about our future. It's calling for a sustainable future. We've got to act and we've actually got to act urgently, so that we put this planet back onto a sustainable path," said Bishop Jeff Davies, Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute. "At the moment, we are destroying our very life support systems."
Figueres said that talks were in "good shape" in preparation for the more senior delegates.
One reason for an uptick in optimism may be a signal from China that it will in the future set absolute caps on its emissions, perhaps as early as 2020. Until now, China has spoken of emissions controls purely in terms of energy intensity, or the amount of energy it uses per unit of economic production.
The signal from Beijing came from Xu Huaqing, a senior researcher for China's Energy Research Institute, who was quoted Friday in the semiofficial China Daily. His remarks were confirmed privately by one of China's top climate negotiators, Su Wei, on the sidelines of the talks in South Africa.
China is the world's largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gas and a main foil of industrial countries in the U.N. negotiations. Virtually every statement, even semiofficial comments, is parsed by delegates seeking departures from its public positions.
"It's part and parcel of a growing realization that all countries can contribute to the solution, that every one of them has to do it, of course, according to their respective capabilities," Figures said.
The 27 members of the European Union provide the bulk of those countries falling under Kyoto's targets. In return for signing up to another round of pledges, the EU wants all major polluters to agree to a legally binding regime for everyone to be negotiated by 2015.
The United States refused to join the Kyoto regime, which it said unfairly exempted major developing countries from any emissions constraints.