It’s becoming almost an annual ritual. Another United Nations climate change conference, another report showing how far the world is from tackling global warming effectively — and another leak of hacked emails from the University of East Anglia.

What made the latest “climategate” revelations interesting was not their content — there was no evidence to overturn the independent review’s exoneration of the university’s scientists last year — but the leakers’ evident belief that the UN conference that started on Monday in South Africa, is worth destabilising in this way. While the target of the original controversy, the summit in Copenhagen two years ago, was clearly going to be a decisive moment for global action on climate change, this year’s gathering in Durban was not. On the contrary, in recent months Western governments have been busy lowering expectations. Did the leakers know something most of the world doesn’t?

Perhaps they did. For Durban might just turn out to be a more significant moment than we first thought.

Let’s recall the state of play. The Copenhagen conference in December 2009 had been billed as the moment when the international community would agree on a new climate change treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Under the pressure of expectation, almost every country in the world adopted new climate targets, many of them highly ambitious. But the negotiations themselves broke down and even a non-binding “Accord” could not be agreed.

Then, in Cancun last year, order was restored: a series of decisions brought both the Copenhagen targets and a new framework of rules and institutions under UN agreement. For the first time, the overall goal of limiting global warming to 2ºC above pre-industrial times was enshrined, and countries committed to a review of their emissions reduction pledges by 2015.

Yet it is already clear what the latter process will show: those pledges are not sufficient to meet the 2ºC goal. Last week’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report from the UN Environment Programme sets out the evidence starkly. To have a likely chance of staying below 2 degrees of warming, the world will need to be producing emissions of no more than 44 gigatonnes (GT CO2e) by 2020.

But even if every country implemented its commitments to their maximum extent, emissions will be 50 GT CO2e by then. And if implementation is weak, they could be as much as 55 GT CO2e. So the emissions gap in 2020 will be at least 6 GT and could be up to 11 GT. This suggests that the world is currently on course not for a 2ºC rise but for one more likely to be 3-5ºC, which in terms of human and ecological impact would enter the terrain of the catastrophic.

The UNEP report is at pains to point out that this gap is not inevitable. It analyses a series of methods by which emissions in 2020 could be brought back to the 2ºC path — through lower carbon energy production and transport, energy efficiency and reductions in deforestation, and by cutting emissions from international aviation and shipping, which are not counted in national pledges.

But action will need to be rapid: as the International Energy Agency warned in a parallel report, also published this month, the world has only about five years to start investing in low-carbon technologies at the required rate. By 2017, if fossil fuel investment retains its current dominance, the world will have locked in future emissions so far that the 2ºC path will become unattainable. Meanwhile, global emissions rose again last year as global growth bounced back after the slump of 2009. Indeed, the IEA shows that it is not just total emissions that are increasing but, even more worryingly, emissions intensity: the world is using more energy to produce each unit of output than in previous years, not less.

With this alarming backdrop, what can the Durban conference achieve? Well, the first thing to be said is that it won’t see any countries pledging deeper cuts in their emissions. As Australia has amply demonstrated, the cuts already on the table were hard-won enough, and if there were any lingering appetite for more, the West’s economic crisis has eliminated it.

Most of the negotiations in Durban will therefore be about implementing the decisions made in Cancun: establishing a new Green Fund to channel financial assistance from rich to poorer countries to help them tackle climate change; setting up new mechanisms for adaptation to global warming and the transfer of low-carbon technologies; and getting revenues from aviation and shipping emissions into the global funding regime.

Meaningful progress on each of these is possible in Durban; but it is on the largest and thorniest issues of all — the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the prospect of a new legally binding treaty — that attention is beginning to focus. And much to many people’s surprise, a possible deal is beginning to emerge.

A few months ago, Kyoto seemed to be in its death throes. At Copenhagen the developed country signatories had had a chance to renew their commitments beyond their current expiry date of 2012. But they refused: repeating their longstanding complaint that Kyoto covered less than a fifth of the world’s emissions (and falling), they pressed for a comprehensive treaty including all major emitters, including the United States and China.

But the big four emerging economies (China, India, Brazil and South Africa — the so-called BASIC group) rejected not merely the form of a new treaty but even the idea, deleting the ultimate goal of a “legally binding outcome” from the Copenhagen Accord’s conclusions. Developing countries would not be forced into “legal equivalence” with the developed countries historically responsible for global warming: it was only the latter that must be bound by international law. Developing countries, BASIC insisted, had only voluntary obligations compatible with their right to pursue development.

For many observers, that seemed the end. With both the United States and the big developing countries opposed to a new treaty, the top-down Kyoto model of negotiated legal commitments appeared to have run its course. We were now in a world of “pledge and review,” of bottom-up policies in every country, at best loosely aggregated into a global reporting system. Not long after, Japan, Russia and Canada all announced that they would not be putting their emissions reduction commitments into a second (post-2012) commitment period of Kyoto. The nails were prepared for its coffin.

Yet over the last few weeks, remarkably, the corpse has been twitching.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story