Canada won't pull out of the Kyoto Protocol before the end of the UN climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, but Environment Minister Peter Kent isn't answering questions about what will happen after that.

Kent said Tuesday he told UN officials there would be "no unfortunate surprises" during the conference, referred to as COP 17. He said he told officials "we were here, as I told you, to continue in good faith our work towards a new international climate regime which will include all of the major emitters."

But asked whether Canada would withdraw following the conference, which runs until Dec. 9, Kent wouldn't answer.

"I’m telling you that our focus remains now on COP 17 and moving the process forward," he said.

Part of that focus seems to be getting China to talk more about its willingness to take on hard targets for greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020. Despite media reports over the weekend that China was softening on the issue, the country's delegates haven't yet been willing to elaborate, Kent said.

Kent says Canada's lead negotiator, Guy Saint-Jacques, had the chance to ask the Chinese negotiator for more details at a preliminary meeting Tuesday, but didn't get an answer.

"Ambassador Saint-Jacques said that he would welcome, and he felt the conference would welcome, China officially communicating to us the details of those news reports," Kent said. "The Chinese delegate remained silent.

"The Chinese delegation has provided no details of what was hinted at in the weekend news reports. We’re ever hopeful certainly if that were to materialize that that would be a positive step forward by the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, but as I say they have not volunteered that information."

South African media reports said China would consider hard targets for the country's emissions after 2020, but only if developed countries renewed their commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012.

That would leave Canada and China at odds, since Canada has refused to sign onto a second phase of Kyoto, but it was a concession that made observers more hopeful the 194 countries in Durban for the talks could agree on a new binding deal.

'Canada's good faith'

Kent pointed to $291.5 million that Canada has contributed so far to the World Bank for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, and said Canada has put $33 million into five projects in Africa and Latin America since last June. He says those projects will help eliminate more than 700,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year.

"This is what we consider Canada’s good faith. It gives us the moral authority to encourage all major emitting countries both in the developed as well as the developing world to do their part to step up and reduce absolutely annual emissions," Kent said.

He reiterated that Canada won't obstruct a deal on a second phase of the Kyoto protocol, but said he hopes to see a new agreement that includes major emitters like China and India in 2015 rather than 2020, "because we do feel we need to get the major emitters into the tent sooner and not later."

The U.S. also wants to see all countries bound equally by the new treaty.

Deal may be "out of reach for now'

But UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is tamping down expectations the world will be able to reach an all-encompassing climate deal with binding targets.

An agreement like that "may be beyond our reach for now," the UN chief said Tuesday, as China and India delivered a setback to European plans to negotiate a new treaty that would bind all parties to their pledges on greenhouse gas emissions.

The European "road map" toward a new accord that would take effect after 2020 is a centrepiece of negotiations. It has been presented as a condition for Europe to renew and expand its emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

"We must be realistic about expectations for a breakthrough in Durban," Ban said as he opened the final ministerial stage of the two-week conference.

Political differences, the worldwide financial crisis and a divergence of priorities among rich and poor countries are barriers to an agreement on a future negotiating path, Ban said. But he urged nations to resolve lesser issues.

"It would be difficult to overstate the gravity of this moment. Without exaggeration, we can say the future of our planet is at stake." 

Binding limits contentious

As the conference moved into high gear, EU and U.S. officials said that China made it clear in private meetings that it will not accept international limits on its carbon emissions in the future.

China has publicly stated it is willing to embark on negotiations on a legally binding post-2020 deal, but it has never explicitly stated that it would accept binding restrictions for itself.

An EU delegate said that China unequivocally rejected the idea of assuming internationally binding limits on its emissions during a closed meeting on Monday with EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard. The delegate spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were still in an early stage.

China maintains that it is still a developing country with millions of impoverished people, despite its huge cash reserves. Most research also agrees with Beijing's contention that it is moving faster than most countries in closing dirty industries and developing clean energy.

"Developing countries should not be asked to make a payment every time an existing obligation becomes due on the part of developed countries," said Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, speaking also for China, Brazil and South Africa, the world's four fastest developing economies, known as BASIC.

BASIC said it was essential that the industrial countries renew commitments to cut carbon emissions as laid out in the Kyoto Protocol, moving into what is described as a second commitment period beginning in 2013.

The UN chief urged the industrial countries to keep Kyoto alive, calling it the closest thing to a climate treaty.

"I urge you to carefully consider a second commitment period," Ban said, drawing applause for the only time in his 15-minute address to the 15,000 participants.

South African President Jacob Zuma said the dispute over continuing Kyoto was threatening other issues. If it is not resolved, he told the conference, "the outcome on other matters will become extremely difficult."

Emissions still climbing

Also Tuesday, scientists and UN agencies reminded the delegates that carbon emissions were still climbing and the Earth still warming while they were seeking political solutions.

An international treaty on climate change wouldn't be enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures, and countries need to voluntarily make deeper cuts in carbon emissions, said Achim Steiner, the head of the UN Environment Program.

A UNEP report, released last month and formally presented to the host government South Africa, said the world is losing ground in controlling heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

"We are not moving fast enough," Steiner said. "We are losing time."

With files from The Associated Press