Copenhagen, December 15— “We can fail,” warned Danish Minister of the Environment Connie Hedegaard, president of the COP-15 climate change conference now happening in Copenhagen. Her warning was echoed by Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who added, “There has been some progress, but not nearly enough to present to the world as a success in Copenhagen.” These dour assessments were made at the end of the 9th day of the conference at the ceremonial session welcoming the arrival of environment ministers from around the world. Both nevertheless gamely suggested that “success”—by which they mean significant commitments to establishing some kind of global scheme to handle man-made climate change—could still be had.

More than 100 heads of state are planning to show up at the end of the week to endorse whatever agreement their environment ministers manage to hammer out over the next two days. So there’s a lot of pressure on the negotiators to come up with something that will make their bosses look good on Friday.

However, failure is a real option. Deep divisions between the rich and poor nations—and especially between the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the United States and China—are threatening to derail the conference. It’s interesting to see how the two countries portray their disagreements. China’s Ambassador Yu Qingtai characterizes his country’s stance as defending the terms that the whole world has already agreed to in earlier climate covenants. U.S. Ambassador Todd Stern argues that the United States is not bound by the Kyoto Protocol, for the simple reason that it never signed that treaty. The Kyoto Protocol imposed greenhouse gas reduction goals on those developed countries that ratified it. Reductions averaged about 5 percent below 1990 levels.

Yu believes that the fact that the U.S. was not included in the Kyoto Protocol is being used as a pretext to “kill the Kyoto Protocol.” Yu points out that two years ago at COP-13, the U.S. agreed to the Bali Action Plan under which U.S. greenhouse gas reductions were to be comparable to those of other countries. Yu also noted that several developed countries have failed to meet their agreed upon Kyoto Protocol reduction goals. He added that behind closed doors the delegates from these countries have told the Chinese “Almost word for word—we didn’t meet our targets. It’s a fact of life and you’d better just accept that.”

China's fierce defense of the Kyoto Protocol arises from the fact that that treaty imposed no greenhouse gas reductions on the country. China strenuously objects to U.S. insistence that economically emerging countries be obliged to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases. China is particularly invested in keeping the Kyoto terms alive since it now emits more greenhouse gases annually than the United States. “From our point of view, you can't even begin to have an environmentally sound agreement without the adequate, significant participation of China,” insisted U.S. Ambassador Stern. And he’s right. There is no chance that the Senate will ratify a climate agreement that doesn’t include China.

Before the conference, China pledged to increase its carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent by 2020; that is, it would reduce by that much the amount of fossil fuels it burns to produce a given amount of economic output. Although the U.S. and the E.U. have not accepted China’s pledge, Stern noted that it nevertheless raised the issue of verification. He insisted that there must be some measure of international consultation on what constitutes transparency in meeting climate change commitments. China views such independent auditing as an intrusion on its sovereignty.

Another major bone of contention at the conference is financing. In the negotiations, poor developing countries are trying to shake down the rich countries for hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that would allegedly be used to help them adapt to climate change. The poor country negotiators argue that the industrialized countries have filled up the atmosphere with the extra carbon as they grew rich leaving less “space” for developing countries to emit as they now industrialize. In fact, scientists estimate that since 1750 about 27 percent of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was produced by the United States. In comparison, all of Europe, excluding Russia, is responsible for about 30 percent, while China has put only 9 percent of the additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The European Union has pledged €2.4 billion in climate aid to poor countries over the next three years, but it appears that most of that is simply re-packaging previous pledges, not new money. Always the stickler for contractual details, Chinese Ambassador Yu reminded the press that under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change the size of the financial contributions that the developed countries committed themselves to cover for developing countries are the “full incremental costs of the damages from climate change.” Yu cannily suggested that lots of research shows that climate damages are far greater than the rich country aid pledges already made. Yu said that all China and other developing countries are asking at COP-15 is for rich countries to fulfill their clearly agreed on financial commitments.

But this again raises the issue of verification. U.S. and E.U. negotiators, mindful that the trillions spent on foreign aid over the past 50 years have been largely wasted, are insisting on what amounts to outside auditing to make sure that any climate aid provided is not stolen or frittered away by incompetent governments.

The U.S. is being heavily criticized by developing country negotiators and activists for not adopting “ambitious” greenhouse gas reduction goals. President Barack Obama has tentatively offered to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020, a goal set by the House of Representatives last June in the American Climate and Energy Security (ACES) Act. The activists point out that this would amount to a cut of just 4 percent below the levels emitted in 1990, which is less than the 7 percent target set for the U.S. in the never-ratified Kyoto Protocol.

Stern struck back at critics in the press conference, noting that only in the “hermetically sealed” world of climate change negotiations do 1990 emissions levels become “sacrosanct.” He pointed out that the ACES bill included interim targets in which the U.S. could cut emissions 30 percent by 2025 and 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. These emissions cuts would amount to 18 per cent and 33 percent below 1990 levels, respectively. The European Union has proposed that it would cut its emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but has offered no targets for cuts beyond 2020.

If a substantial agreement can be finalized, the Obama administration will use it to argue that Congress needs to pass some carbon rationing legislation so that the U.S. can negotiate a legally-binding international climate change treaty when COP-16 meets in Mexico City next November.

One note: Not surprisingly, I have not heard a word about Climategate inside the COP meeting. However, I did snap this picture of a polar bear wondering where Climate Research Unit’s Phil Jones was.

Tomorrow: Some new scientific information of snow and ice melting trends. Hint: They are worse than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected two years ago, but people will still be able to retire to Florida at the end of the century.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.