Vapour rises from a steel mill chimney in an industrial town. Picture: Reuters/Tim Wimborne

The German Press Agency, DPA, put it like this: “China and the United States, the biggest bad boys on the world climate scene, ended their longtime coalition of the unwilling and joined a historic UN climate deal in Durban on Sunday.”

Agreement by more than 190 countries, including the US and China, in the early hours yesterday, which saw the COP17 climate change summit extended by more than 36 hours to clinch a way forward of sorts, was hailed by some as a victory and a real step forward.

Essentially, the world has agreed to reach a legally binding agreement on pollution by 2015, to take effect in 2020. There is a heavy load of work ahead.

So what was achieved at 3.10am in Durban yesterday was another stepping stone on a tortuous route to world agreement on preventing climatic catastrophe. After 20 years of hand-wringing and negotiations about poisoning Earth with gigatons of carbon, the Durban conference kept the process alive and possibly saved the most significant agreement so far, the Kyoto protocol– though it remains binding only for some.

There will no doubt be disappointment among many who are seeing the world fast heading for ruin as countries wrangle and dither.

But the hunt for a tight global contract to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an immense challenge. Recognition of this, rather than spectacular progress, is probably the biggest outcome of COP17.

A climate accord demands sacrifice from countries. It asks them to put common interest above national interest, a concept alien to governments which promise economic stability and prosperity to their electorates, not people across the world.

COP17 showed again that carbon emissions remain the backbone of wealth to many countries. Hence the painfully slow progress.

But, in Durban, at least we saw the progress of commitment by developed and developing nations to work towards a legally binding carbon reduction agreement and deadline. So the talking and the dealing will go on.