After a tumultuous day of negotiations, leaders in Copenhagen reached a climate deal late Friday. The agreement falls short of many negotiators’ expectations and hopes, but it salvages the conference and lays the foundation for a binding treaty somewhere down the line.

President Obama held a press conference shortly after news of the deal broke, calling the agreement “an important milestone” but acknowledging its shortcomings. “This progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough,” he said. “We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.”

The breakthrough occurred after Obama burst into a meeting of Chinese, Indian, and South African negotiators and took them to task for holding the discussions in secret. Their eventual agreement centered on three pillars, Obama said: “transparency, mitigation, and finance.”

But the deal does not include the anticipated goal of a binding treaty by the end of 2010, and it leaves many questions unanswered. Even U.S. officials expressed dissatisfaction with the accord. “It is not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change,” said one, “but it’s an important first step.”

Confusion reigned for much of the day, as negotiations took place behind closed doors and reporters tried to sort out the many rumors that swirled. One minute, it appeared that no deal was imminent and President Obama was going to leave Denmark empty-handed. The next, participants were latching onto reports from India that a deal was near. Journalists crammed into a conference room where Obama was set to speak, only to be told that Obama had “no intention whatsoever to have a press conference in here.”

The prospects for a deal appeared bleak earlier in the day, after Obama’s address to the delegates was poorly received. And although the eventual accord came as a relief to negotiators who feared the conference would end in failure, it received mixed reviews from environmental organizations, with descriptions ranging from a “sham deal” (Friends of the Earth) to a “historic — if incomplete — agreement” (Sierra Club).

Ultimately, it appears that the Copenhagen talks will end on a note of uncertainty, much as they began.

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