updated 4/24/2009 4:21:47 PM ET 2009-04-24T20:21:47

A top U.N. environment official said Friday that fundamental differences remain among countries negotiating a new agreement on carbon emissions, and that he is concerned over the possibility of bridging those gaps.

Achim Steiner, executive director for the U.N. Environment Program, said that discussions at an environment meeting in Sicily were among the "most frank" he has seen and largely focused on sticking points "where fundamental differences remain to be overcome."

The meeting in Siracusa, bringing together ministers from the Group of Eight developed nations and emerging economies, ended after three days with no major breakthrough or specific commitment on climate change. But delegates said they identified the main problems still to overcome in negotiations and stressed the importance of making the economic recovery packages greener.

They also signed a charter on the need to address biodiversity loss.

The meeting in the eastern Sicilian city was largely intended to lay some groundwork ahead of a crucial U.N. conference in December in Copenhagen. That gathering aims to replace the 1998 Kyoto Protocol and draft a new agreement to regulate carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

The sticking points identified by the delegates are short-, medium-, and long-term targets for emission cuts, funding and what kind of governance to have in place once a new agreement is reached, according to Italian Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, who played host.

"I do leave Siracusa very much concerned that there is as yet no clear pathway to resolving the gaps that remain," Steiner said, describing the gaps as "significant."

He told reporters that one positive sign is that realism — the recognition that time is running out — has set in and that there has been "less finger-pointing and perhaps more reflection."

Countries discussed how much they need to reduce emissions and how to transfer money and technology to poor countries who are most vulnerable to increasingly fierce storms, droughts and failing crops.

Non-government delegates in Siracusa, including aid and relief agencies, said a major problem was the reluctance of countries to come forward with specific proposals.

"The negotiations on climate are paralyzed by a sort of 'first-step syndrome,'" Oxfam International said. "No country is willing to make a commitment unless others do the same."

The meeting, the aid agency said, ended with "many statements of principles, but no clear and measurable commitment."

Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who attended the meeting, did not specify emission targets for the United States. But she renewed the American commitment to tackling climate change and detailed efforts under way in Washington.

"We see a much much more positive situation in the U.S. than we have seen for a very very long time," said Kim Carstensen, the climate change director for WWF International. "The back side of that is of course we don't yet see the conclusions.

"We need to see U.S. — like Canada, Japan, Italy or Russia — come forward, saying more specifically what it is that they can put on the table. That will change the mode of the negotiations," he told The Associated Press.

But delegates in the medieval castle-turned-summit venue did agree on a biodiversity deal.

A "Siracusa Charter" reaffirmed a commitment to drastically slow species loss by 2010 and committed to investments in biodiversity as a way to create jobs and long-term economic benefits.

The Group of Eight comprises Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Other participants included representatives from China — which has recently surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases — India and Brazil.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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