After two weeks of mind-numbing debate, including two final days of round-the-clock haggling, world leaders have reached a deal at the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa. But how big of a deal is it?


The Associated Press calls it a "landmark" pact, and that's not necessarily an overstatement. But it's important to note that, due to rock-bottom expectations and the notoriously slow pace of U.N. climate talks, averting a total collapse often counts as progress.


According to a statement from Alden Meyer, policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "The good news is we avoided a train wreck. The bad news is that we did very little here to affect the emissions curve."


Diplomats from 194 countries finally agreed to begin the process of drafting a new pact that governs all countries via the same set of rules. That's significant, since a perceived double standard has long been the main sticking point between developed and developing nations. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only developed nations face mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions — a distinction the U.S. calls unfair, leading it to boycott Kyoto since 2001.


The Kyoto treaty was set to expire in 2012, but it will now be extended for five more years under the deal reached Sunday. That was a key demand of developing nations, who argue that developed nations are more responsible for CO2 now in the atmosphere due to their leading roles in the Industrial Revolution.


"The equity of burden-sharing cannot be shifted," said Jayanthi Natarajan, India's environment minister, amid one of the summit's more heated debates. China also argued that some wealthy nations — namely the U.S. — were being hypocritical by pushing poorer countries to adopt reforms that they had yet to adopt themselves. "We are doing whatever we should do," said Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua. "We are doing things you are not doing. What qualifies you to say things like this?"


Beyond extending the Kyoto Protocol to 2017, the Durban Platform also lays the groundwork for an all-inclusive, legally binding deal to cut CO2 emissions. This accord is to be hashed out by 2015 and should become operational by 2020. Formally dubbed the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, it would "develop a new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force" that could be enforced under the existing U.N. climate convention.


The conference ended up running nearly two days beyond its scheduled deadline, but the 11th-hour agreement was both valuable enough and vague enough to let many countries claim success. "We have made history," said South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who chaired the talks, on the final day of deliberations.


British climate secretary Chris Huhne called Sunday's deal "a great success for European diplomacy," and chief U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern said it has "all the elements we were looking for." Natarajan, meanwhile, said India signed on reluctantly but "in the spirit of flexibility and accommodation shown by all."


Leaders of small island states, which are on the front lines of sea-level rise, were less enthusiastic. "I would have wanted to get more, but at least we have something to work with," said the negotiator for a coalition of small nations. "All is not lost yet."


Many environmental groups expressed even more frustration — in an emailed statement, the WWF's Samantha Smith argues that "governments got practically nothing done here, and that's unacceptable."


Still, she added, "We know climate change is a global problem and it needs a global response. This process didn't deliver that today, but that doesn't mean the global fight to tackle climate change has stopped, both within this process and outside of it."


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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

What will the new U.N. climate deal mean?
Beyond extending the Kyoto Protocol for five more years, the Durban Platform's beauty (or lack thereof) lies in the eye of the beholder.