As nearly 200 countries meet in oil-and-gas-rich Qatar for annual talks starting from Tuesday on slowing global warming, one of the main challenges will be raising climate aid for poor countries at a time when budgets are strained by financial turmoil.

Rich countries have delivered nearly USD 30 billion in grants and loans promised in 2009, but those commitments expire this year. And a Green Climate Fund designed to channel up to USD 100 billion annually to poor countries has yet to begin operating.

Borrowing a buzzword from the US budget debate, Tim Gore of the British charity Oxfam said developing countries, including island nations for whom rising sea levels pose a threat to their existence, stand before a “climate fiscal cliff.”

“So what we need for those countries in the next two weeks are firm commitments from rich countries to keep giving money to help them to adapt to climate change,” he told The Associated Press on Monday.

Creating a structure for climate financing has so far been one of the few tangible outcomes of the two-decade-old UN climate talks, which have failed in their main purpose: reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases that scientists say are warming the planet, melting ice caps, glaciers and permafrost, shifting weather patterns and raising sea levels.

The only binding treaty to limit such emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, expires this year, so agreeing on an extension is seen as the most urgent task by environment ministers and climate officials meeting in the Qatari capital.

However, only the European Union (EU) and a few other countries are willing to join a second commitment period with new emissions targets. And the EU’s chief negotiator, Artur Runge-Metzger, admitted that such a small group is not going to make a big difference in the fight against climate change. “I think we cover at most 14 per cent of global emissions,” he said.

The US rejected Kyoto because it didn’t cover rapidly growing economies such as China and India. Some hope for stronger commitments from US delegates in Doha as work begins on drafting a new global treaty that would also apply to developing countries including China, the world’s top carbon emitter.

That treaty is supposed to be adopted in 2015 and take effect five years later.

Climate financing is a side issue but a controversial one that often deepens the rich-poor divide that has hampered the UN climate talks since their launch in 1992. Critics of the UN process see the climate negotiations as a cover for attempts to redistribute wealth.