International climate negotiators say that the creation of a ‘Durban Platform’ at the COP17 talks in South Africa will preserve the Kyoto Protocol and pave the way for a new global agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The Durban Platform was agreed in the last hours of the two-week conference and should result in a new climate deal being agreed by 2015 to take effect in 2020.

Crucially, it appears to have the backing of both developed and developing nations, but has been criticised by environmental groups as being too weak.

WWF said in a statement that governments had “once again” failed to provide the “inspiration and ambition” needed to tackle climate change. It added that the Durban deal would result in a future with 4°C of warming, rather than the 2°C target that scientists believe is needed.

“Governments did just enough to keep talking, but their job is to protect their people. They failed to do that here in Durban today,” said Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s climate and energy initiative. “Science tells us that we need to act right now – because the extreme weather, droughts and heat waves caused by climate change will get worse.”

Negotiations for a new global agreement are to begin in 2012. The conference also launched a work programme to increase the ambitions of the negotiations, and resolved to establish a Green Climate Fund.

“The headline message is clear. The ‘Kyoto architecture’ – the rules and legal framework for managing emissions – have been preserved and can be built on in the future,” said UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne. “The Durban conference represents a significant step forward.”

Negotiations at Durban saw a political realignment with the EU joining forces with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and other developing countries to argue in favour of a new global agreement. Countries such as China and India – previously opposed to binding target commitments – said that they need to be part of a new post-2020 deal, a move that gave hope of and end to their long impasse with the USA.

WWF said that the emergence of a large group of developing countries, lead by AOSIS, with high ambitions for the negotiations, was a “crumb of comfort” from Durban.

“Negotiating the details will be extremely tough,” said Elliot Diringer, Executive Vice President of the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). “But the broad terms reached in Durban help ensure that any future treaty will include commitments from both developed and developing countries.”

The Durban Platform contains no language about legally binding commitments, so although it could lead to a global agreement on climate change, it may not be able to enforce specific limits on nations’ emissions.

“Unfortunately, governments here have spent the last two crucial final days of negotiations focused on only a handful of specific words in the negotiating texts, instead of spending their political capital on committing to more and real action to address climate change,” said Smith.

“Overall, the responsibility for this lies with a handful of entrenched governments – like the US, Japan, Russia, and Canada – who have consistently resisted raising the level of ambition on climate change. This is what brought us to this point.”