BONN, Germany (Reuters) - "Ask for a camel when you expect to get a goat," runs a Somali saying that sums up the fading of ambitions for United Nations talks on slowing climate change -- aim high, but settle for far less.
Developing nations publicly insist the rich must agree far deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but increasingly believe that only a weaker deal can actually be achieved to keep the existing Kyoto Protocol, or parts of it, alive beyond 2012.
"They have to ask for a camel ... but will settle for a goat," Mohamed Adow, of Christian Aid, said of poor nations' strategy at a just-ended session of 180 nations in Bonn.
Hopes for a treaty have dimmed since U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders failed to agree a binding pact at a summit in Copenhagen in 2009.
Rich economies are reluctant to make substantial cuts in their emissions beyond 2012 without commitments from big developing economies like China and India to also curb their fast-rising emissions.
At issue now is what can be salvaged from the talks.
"This process is dead in the water," said Yvo de Boer, the former head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat who stepped down last year to work at KPMG, a consultancy and auditing firm.
"It's not going anywhere," he said during the June 6-17 talks in Bonn among negotiators trying to avert more heatwaves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels.
Disputes between rich and poor on sharing curbs in greenhouse gases mean gridlock over the Kyoto Protocol, the existing U.N. plan which obliges about 40 industrialised nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions until 2012.
Kyoto risks collapse due to lack of support beyond 2012 from rich nations, which are meant to take the lead in fighting climate change since they have burnt carbon-emitting fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.
Christiana Figueres, de Boer's successor in 2010 as head of the U.N. Secretariat, says the process of agreeing new terms to tackle climate change will be a long haul, despite worries that disasters such as floods in China's Yangtze basin this month are getting more frequent.
"Governments, businesses and civil society cannot solve climate with one meeting, with one agreement," she said at the end of the talks of ministers' scaled-down ambitions.
Bonn made progress on technical issues such as designing a scheme for sharing clean energy technologies, and to help poor nations adapt to impact to impacts of climate change.
But the buzz in the corridors was about details. "There has been no advance in the substantive issue of pledges for reductions in emissions" by developed nations, said Pablo Solon, head of Bolivia's delegation in Bonn.
Environment ministers will meet in Durban, South Africa, in November and December to try to agree Kyoto's fate.
Developing nations' current demand is an extension of Kyoto, which obliges almost 40 industrialised nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels from 2008-12.
But Japan, Canada and Russia insist they will not extend their Kyoto cuts, arguing a new pact is needed for big emitters including China and India which have no 2012 curbs under Kyoto.
And Washington never ratified Kyoto, arguing it wrongly omitted 2012 goals for emerging economies and would cost U.S. jobs. Emerging economies in turn argue that their first priority is to end poverty, requiring higher energy use.
Delegates say that the minimum "goat" deal envisioned by developing nations is for a core group, led by the European Union, to extend Kyoto. The EU says it will not go it alone since it accounts for just 11 percent of world greenhouse gases.
"I wonder how wise it is to criticise the party that without comparison delivers the most, instead of trying to help us put pressure on all the big players who do not commit," European Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said.
De Boer said the main hope was now to recast the battle against global warming as part of a broader fight to spur economic growth that does not damage the environment, backed by much greater involvement by the private sector.
Even environmental activists are pulling back from trying to influence government negotiators at U.N. talks, in a strategic shift to focus lobbying on national policies at home.
In past years, activists have staged colourful protests outside the Bonn meetings, for instance dressed as polar bears at risk of melting Arctic ice. Most have now disappeared.
Figueres said talks had made progress -- ministers last year agreed a package of measures in Cancun, Mexico, that included a goal of limiting any temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times.
But a group of scientists estimated that existing plans for cutting greenhouse gases so far put the world on a path to a rise of 3.2 degrees Celsius. Emissions rose last year to a record high, the International Energy Agency said.
Editing by Jan Harvey