While developing nations China, Brazil and India grow at break-neck pace with their burgeoning industry and farming, industrialized countries want them to clean up the dirty practices that have made them some of the world's biggest polluters.
China is the second producer of greenhouse gases, behind the United States, thanks to an industrial boom based on coal-burning energy. Brazil is estimated to be ranked sixth because of the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of the Amazon forest to clear land for soy, and India, also reliant on coal, is the fifth-largest source of the heat-trapping gases.
At the December 6-17 UN conference on climate change in Buenos Aires, negotiators and activists aim to get developing countries on board for the next stage of reducing emissions after the Kyoto protocol concludes in 2012.
Developing countries were excluded from the 1997 Kyoto agreement because they argued that curbs on emissions would thwart much needed growth for their large, poor populations. Their exclusion was one of the reasons the United States declined to sign Kyoto.
But between 1990 and 2000, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions grew by 69 percent in India, 57 percent in Brazil and 33 percent in China.
"If India, China and Brazil replicate our pattern of fossil-intensive development, the game is over," said Alden Meyer, director of the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
Steve Sawyer, climate and energy specialist for Greenpeace says these countries need to "decarbonize" their economies and move toward cleaner energy and more efficient manufacturing. "This will be one of the key features of a post-2012 regime," Sawyer said.
China and Brazil took a step forward at the conference by jointly presenting their inventories on greenhouse gas emissions. India did the same six months ago.
At the presentation Friday, Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary of the UN body dealing with climate change, called China and Brazil "two strong pillars of our climate change process." But the developing nations are expected to stick together and put up a fight on any international initiative that might hit growth, their key to alleviating poverty.
Brazil's science and technology minister, Eduardo Campos, said last week that the responsibility of slowing global warming "substantially" falls on rich countries.
Diplomats here debate how to give the developing countries incentives to participate in a post-Kyoto deal. Curbs on emissions, like the five percent cut required of Kyoto countries by 2012, would put them off, as would trade sanctions.
Activists say the European Union, the leader in these climate change talks, holds the key to bringing them into the fold.
"The EU has to engage these countries and make it clear that they are not trying to impose measures that would hurt their economies," said Meyer.
Conference host country Argentina and the EU are pushing for an agreement specifically for developing countries ? a package of financial incentives and technology transfers to promote their adaptation to climate change.
That might be one of the few breakthroughs of this conference, marred by the United States' refusal to participate in the Kyoto protocol that goes into force in February or in any talks for after 2012.