DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) - China has roared to the front of a green technology race that ultimately could do more to save the planet than the endless hours of UN negotiations, that year after year have failed to deliver an adequate response to climate change.
The latest climate talks in the South African port city of Durban, which dragged on in bitter debate on Friday, might manage incremental steps towards a new treaty on limiting global warming.
But few expect them to deliver the kind of binding deal that would check a rise in temperature steep enough to turn farmland to desert and sink small island nations.
China, meanwhile, has overtaken the United States to become the world's biggest carbon emitter. It has also sped ahead in terms of investment in green technology.
"There is an informal green technology race, led by China, that may in the end be even more successful than that formal deal," said European lawmaker Jo Leinen, who is leading the European Parliament's delegation to the Durban talks.
"But in order to encourage countries a formal deal may be helpful," he added, reflecting the European Union's view that there is still a need for an international treaty on carbon cuts as the best guarantee of positive change.
China invested $54 billion in low carbon energy technology in 2010, compared to the United States' $34 billion, the US Pew Environment Group said.
With a pressing need to provide food, fuel and water for the world's biggest population, China more than most can see the value of energy forms that limit the global warming that has already turned tracts of its land to desert.
India, the world's third biggest carbon emitter behind China and the United States, has also begun moving towards green development.
Like China it is working on market-based trading scheme to encourage energy efficiency and green power and has followed Beijing in setting a domestic goal for curbing its rise in carbon emissions.
But India's highest hopes are pinned on a massive solar energy drive.
According to the Indian Solar Mission, introduced in 2009, solar power output by 2022 would be equivalent to one-eighth of India's current installed power base, helping Asia's third-largest economy after China and Japan to limit its reliance on carbon-intensive coal.
Solar energy is fraught with problems, such as the need for huge initial investment.
But that could be a smaller challenge than getting a new binding deal to bring all nations into mandatory carbon cuts under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its companion legislation the Kyoto Protocol.
The clause making developed nations commit to emissions cuts expires at the end of next year and debate has raged over how to replace it, with rich and poor nations squabbling over how the cost and burden of climate action should be shared.
One obstacle has been the United States, which did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and has said it will not agree to any new accord unless all emitters are equally bound by it.
At state level in the United States progress has been achieved towards emissions trading and green technology. Nationally, environmental legislation has been systematically blocked as President Barack Obama's Democrats and Republicans squabble over green issues.
Some observers see that as an argument for an international deal which overrides the whims of short-term governments in favor of the long-term needs of the planet.
BROKEN UN PROCESS
But U.S. academic Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado, whose book "The Climate Fix" looks at why the world has failed to address global warming, says the international process is broken.
"Today, the pursuit of an international agreement is arguably an obstacle to action," he said. "We have gotten confused about ends and means."
The magnitude and urgency of the task called for a business-like response.
"Stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere requires that our global energy production becomes more than 90 percent carbon-free. Today it is about 15 percent," he said.
"The way to go from 15 percent to more than 90 percent is via technological innovation in energy production and consumption."
The U.N. climate legislation has been designed to encourage green innovation and can continue to do that with or without a new binding agreement on extending binding emissions cuts, he says.
But it could manage that without summit meetings, attended by nearly 200 ministers who argue through the night.
Even some firm believers in U.N. agreements accept the U.N. climate process needs to change.
Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's climate special envoy, said he is gathering support for an amendment that would allow nations to force a vote on issues when consensus proves too difficult, in line with procedures in other U.N. bodies.
"It (the U.N. climate process) is probably one of the worst U.N. processes in terms of U.N. efficiency. The U.N. process can be much better. This is a process which is urgently in need of reform," said de Alba, who is also Mexico's permanent representative to the United Nations in New York.
"It takes too much financial and human effort. People meet too frequently all over the world. It has become a modus vivendi for some delegates."