As the annual UN conference tackling global warming opens today in Durban, the sunshine city of South Africa, a cloud of pessimism hovers over the long-deadlocked climate negotiations. While many analysts expect yet another non-event, negotiators and observers say the 12-day UN Framework Convention on Climate Change still has merit as the floundering UN climate regime waits to be rescued from the brink of collapse. In the lead-up to next year's expiration of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, widely seen as a cornerstone for international negotiations and subsequent global efforts to combat climate change, the divided major parties have shown little sign of nearing an agreement over whether the pact should be renewed. Other key issues of contention that have stalled previous climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Cancun, Mexico, over the past two years, such as carbon targets, funding shortages and technology transfers, are expected to continue to haunt the Durban talks, given deep rifts and mistrust between rich and poor countries. Professor Zhang Haibin, an expert on climate diplomacy at Peking University, said: 'Most experts both at home and abroad tend to feel pessimistic about the prospect of this year's gathering, which means it is highly unlikely to see any substantive progress in Durban.' Zhang said the importance and urgency of climate talks had been weakened by the unfolding financial turmoil in Europe and upheavals in North Africa, which have also dampened the political will among leading powers to hammer out a replacement for the Kyoto pact. Professor Zou Ji, a climate expert at Beijing's Renmin University and the US-based World Resources Institute, also said that, given the difficulties and lowered expectations, the Durban meeting was unlikely to be a landmark gathering, following the much-hyped Copenhagen talks in 2009, which began amid unprecedented fanfare but ended in an embarrassing debacle. Although hopes of reconciling glaring differences between developed and developing nations, or of reaching a new legally binding pact on carbon emission cuts remain low, modest progress is still possible as climate negotiators have learned to be less ambitious but more pragmatic in securing small, incremental steps to avoid another disappointing failure after the Copenhagen talks, analysts say. For China and other emerging economies, the imperative issue at Durban is the extension of the Kyoto pact, the only legally binding international deal that calls for mandatory cuts by industrialised nations and for voluntary cuts by developing nations. But for developed nations, the exemption of China, the world's largest carbon emitter, and India, the fourth-largest emitter, in any new climate pact would simply be unfair and unacceptable. Japan, Canada and Russia have refused to sign on for a second commitment period of the Kyoto pact after the first period expires at the end of next year, saying it would not make much sense if emerging economies and the US, which has yet to ratify the pact, continue to be excluded from committing to legally binding cuts in emissions. Europe has been a bit more flexible. It accepts the extension of the pact, but only with strings attached: China and the US must agree to commit to steep cuts in a wider deal, or at least specify a timetable for when they are going to join an expanded global pact. In a separate proposal this year, Australia and Norway even suggested the delay until 2015 of a new international pact that would encompass emission targets by both developed and large developing nations, in an attempt to give deadlocked negotiations more time to be rescued. There is little doubt that China will remain a key target in the global climate talks, amid growing international anxiety over the rapid rise of the mainland's carbon emissions and their global impact, despite Beijing's pledged efforts to cut energy use and carbon emissions. Li Yan, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace China, said: 'China is already the elephant in the room, and the gap between China and the US, the second top emitter in terms of total emissions, is widening.' She said that China faced challenges not only from rich nations, but also from the developing bloc, where simmering frictions have threatened to further divide. The poorest nations and small island countries have openly called on China to take on greater international responsibility in leading the global fight against climate change since Copenhagen two years ago. Many people have predicted that China, as a leader among developing nations, may have to offer some concessions in Durban to rescue the crumbling Kyoto Protocol, which Beijing sees as pivotal for the protection of the country's political interests and economic development. Beijing, well aware of the mounting pressure, has sought to renew its commitment to climate talks and deflate criticism by putting the blame on rich nations for the near-collapse of the Kyoto pact. Xie Zhenhua, China's top climate negotiator, said last week that Beijing would wait until 2015, when the next UN scientific review on global warming was released, to consider further commitments on emission cuts beyond 2020. While some interpreted his remarks as an indication of possible compromises on China's acceptance of binding targets, which Beijing has resisted for years, others disagree. Dr Liu Bin, a climate researcher at Tsinghua University who is a member of China's negotiating team, said Xie's remarks were more like a delaying tactic. 'We think it's too early to talk about emission-cut commitments beyond 2020,' she said. 'By setting a 2015 timetable, we will have a few more years before having to consider how to deal with the contentious issue.'