The conference foundered on the issue that divided the EU and the US-led umbrella group all along: whether or not carbon absorption by managed forest and agricultural land could be counted as credits towards industrialised countries' Kyoto protocol 2008-12 emission targets. "In the end it came down to nothing but sinks," a senior Belgian official told ENDS Daily.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, with official talks still proceeding at a snail's pace, UK deputy prime minister John Prescott won the backing of the EU's French presidency to negotiate a deal directly with the USA and fellow sink-enthusiasts Japan and Canada.
A package emerged, imposing curbs on credits from domestic forestry sinks that specifically limited the USA to 75m tonnes of carbon equivalent (MtC) towards its 2008-12 target, while Japan and Canada would have sink caps of 15MtC each. The deal would have imposed tighter sink accounting rules for subsequent commitment periods.
Other industrialised countries would also have been able to claim sinks allowances under the proposals, which, however, were aimed firmly at winning round the three states that argued most strongly for their inclusion. The 75MtC American sink allowance compares with 135MtC sought by US negotiators earlier in the week.
Other elements of the agreement were no quantitative cap on the use of the protocol's flexible mechanisms, while sinks would be excluded from the clean development mechanism - a key EU demand.
When Mr Prescott presented the draft deal to EU colleagues a majority of delegations rejected it, arguing that the sinks "loophole" offered to the USA was still too big. Germany, Nordic countries and current EU president France were most vocally against. Mr Prescott then stormed out of the conference centre, saying he was "gutted" that the deal had not gone through.
After the Briton's departure, the US delegation surprised everyone by offering a further concession which, it is thought, would have capped its sinks allowance at 50MtC. German environment minister Jürgen Trittin developed his own variant, including a US sink cap of 20MtC and tight limits on sales of surplus "hot air" emission credits from eastern European countries, while conceding there should be no overall cap on the flexible mechanisms.
Mr Pronk called time on these informal talks when it became clear they would not conclude in time to be put to the rest of the conference, leaving the way open for bitter recriminations all round, including within the EU camp.
Britain's Mr Prescott yesterday blamed French environment minister and official EU representative Dominique Voynet, claiming she had become too tired to follow the negotiations. Mr Voynet hit back, accusing Mr Prescott of "macho" behaviour and restating the majority EU view that the deal finally on offer had been unacceptable. Danish environment minister Svend Auken flew to Ms Voynet's defence today, calling on Mr Prescott to apologise for his comments.
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