(CNN) -- On December 11, 1997, the world agreed that climate change needed to be tackled. The grandly named United Nations Framework on Climate Change adopted the Kyoto Protocol on that day, and it was eventually ratified by 191 countries. Now it's about to expire with a whimper.
Of the major industrial powers, only the European Union is prepared to continue adhering to the Kyoto pact's provisions on cutting greenhouse gases into 2013. Canada, Russia and Japan have already said they won't. The United States never ratified the agreement. So attention is turning to devising a "Kyoto 2.0."
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This week, nearly 200 delegations have gathered in Qatar to plan for a new international climate pact that would come into effect in 2020. But there are huge disagreements between developed and developing countries over sharing the burden.
The Kyoto agreement envisaged binding cuts in emissions by the industrialized world -- but not by rapidly industrializing countries like China and India. They are now the largest and third-largest generator of carbon emissions, respectively, and developing countries account for more than half the world's emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
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The global economic slowdown has helped curb emissions in the developed world. But China and the United States were together responsible for more than 40% of emissions in 2009. U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have risen by 10.5% since 1990. And China is heavily reliant on coal -- the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels -- to drive its economic growth.
The stakes for the environmental health of the globe and its citizens have gotten a lot higher in the last 15 years, amid widespread crop failures in the Northern Hemisphere, changing weather patterns, acidifying oceans and a record ice melt in the Arctic Ocean. Right now, a Russian tanker carrying liquefied natural gas is steaming through the Arctic on its way to Japan -- the first such vessel ever to take the route, thanks to thinner ice cover.
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The last decade has seen nine of the hottest years on record. And in a new report, the World Bank cites the "nearly unanimous" prediction by scientists that the globe will warm by as much as 4 degrees Celsius this century. It expects the consequences to include "the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter."
"Recent extreme heat waves such as in Russia in 2010 are likely to become the new normal. ... Tropical South America, central Africa, and all tropical islands in the Pacific are likely to regularly experience heat waves of unprecedented magnitude and duration," according to the World Bank study.
The World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency, reported last week that global carbon dioxide emissions had risen by 50% since 1990. There's fresh evidence that they are still rising, and an overwhelming majority of climate scientists say the warming of the planet is accelerating, with consequences we can't predict. Scientists describe this as the "cascade of uncertainties."
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The WMO calculates that the volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now reached 390.9 parts per million, roughly 40% higher than the level before the Industrial Revolution. 375 billion tons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere since 1750.