THE APEC regional forum has ended hopes for a new global treaty on climate change in December, with leaders conceding Copenhagen will deliver only a political framework for future action.
At a breakfast meeting on the sidelines of the Singapore gathering attended by the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and chaired by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, leaders all but ditched the idea of securing binding agreement in December.
A senior US official quoted by news agencies said the leaders had agreed it was unrealistic to expect a legal agreement to be reached in only 22 days given the state of negotiations.
The Copenhagen summit, according to US negotiator and senior White House official Michael Froman, was now to be "an important step forward" rather than the definitive breakthrough.
The Danish Prime Minister said a political agreement would provide the basis for future action. "Even if we may not hammer out the last dots of a legally binding instrument, I do believe a political binding agreement with specific commitment to mitigation and finance provides a strong basis for immediate action in the years to come," said Mr Rasmussen.
The APEC summit itself also failed to reach an internal consensus on specific targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
A plan to include a 50 per cent cut in 1990-level carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 was dropped from the official communique because of China's objections.
Mr Rasmussen laid out a two-track process at yesterday's hastily convened breakfast meeting that would enable political agreement to be reached in Copenhagen over mitigation, adaptation, technology and finance.
Such an agreement would be a face-saving measure to ensure the Copenhagen summit can capture progress to date, as well as present a first step to the world, rather than simply deadlock and division.
The difficult but critical phase of the process - the legally binding agreements to cut greenhouse gas emissions - would be deferred until later, according to the briefing at APEC by the US official.
The earliest those agreements could take place would now be 2010 - or later, if the Obama Administration's efforts to get its climate bill through the Senate falter.
Environmental group WWF said the leaders had ''missed a great opportunity to move the world closer to a fair, ambitious and binding agreement'' in Copenhagen.
Mr Rudd has been signalling the likelihood of a political compromise rather than a legal agreement at Copenhagen.
But in a morning press conference, he chose not to give reporters extensive details of the consensus decision taken by Prime Minister Rasmussen and the APEC leaders to opt for that.
In contrast to the briefing given by US officials, Mr Rudd appeared upbeat about the tenor of the breakfast discussions in Singapore.
He also played down the APEC deadlock, and claimed it was important to view the Singapore summit as "a stepping stone to Copenhagen''.
Mr Rudd said while the process would be "tough as hell", he believed the contributions yesterday by the US and China boded well for future action.
He pointed to a looming meeting between President Obama and President Hu Jintao where the two men would have another opportunity to assess their pre-Copenhagen stance.
Mr Obama will travel to Beijing after the APEC summit. "I draw your attention to the absolute importance of discussions which will occur in the days ahead between the Americans and the Chinese," Mr Rudd said.
Official Chinese news agencies at the conclusion of APEC appeared to simply reinforce China's long-held view that developed countries must bear most of the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The China Daily said President Hu had "reiterated China's climate change stance".