Last week, negotiators from 194 countries met in Bonn, Germany, and made little progress in any of six broad areas covered by a join-if-you-like plan that emerged from last December's climate negotiations in Copenhagen.
Instead, it appears that the most significant progress on some issues will take place outside the UN process, where key countries are working to set up a "quick-start" adaptation fund for developing countries and approaches to increase efforts to combat deforestation.
Ironically, some specialists say, UN negotiations are becoming the venue for smaller sets of countries to work on these outside efforts.
If the size of the current UN negotiating text is any indication, the process to have been thrown into reverse – at least for now.
"The frustrating thing about the past week in Bonn is that the text doubled in size again," says Andrew Deutz, senior policy advisor for UN affairs at the Nature Conservancy. "If you want to get an agreement on the text by Cancun, we should be narrowing, rather than expanding."
Echoes of Copenhagen
The process was in a similar position this time last year, specialists say. One result: Negotiators and UN officials increased their effort to downplay the likelihood that Copenhagen would result in a formal legal document. In the end, the climate conference ended up with a Copenhagen accord. Delegates failed to adopt the accord as an official "decision." Instead, they merely left it as something countries could follow or not as they pleased.
Even then, only the presence of heads of state led to the accord. Unlike Copenhagen, however, no heads of state are coming to November's talks in Mexico.
After a week of haggling in Bonn, international negotiators made little progress on several key issues such as transparency and guidelines for developing countries.
"Unfortunately, what we have seen over and over this week is that some countries are walking back from the progress made in Copenhagen and what was agreed there," said Jonathan Pershing, who lead the US negotiating team, at a post-meeting briefing on Friday.
For instance, he said, some developing countries continue to press for binding emissions controls only for industrial countries. Yet the Copenhagen accord and the previous Bali agreement on climate change anticipate that developing countries would attempt to at least reduce the rate of increase in their emission as their economies grow.
"Nobody's really expecting at this point that Cancun is going to reach a comprehensive agreement, " Dr. Deutz says. "People are starting to look ahead to South Africa already, or even beyond" for that, which means no sooner than the end of 2011.
Two bright spots
Two bright spots, however, involve work on deforestation and adaptation aid, observers say.
In Copenhagen, negotiators made significant progress on these issues. And they were key elements in the Copenhagen Accord. Developed and developing countries that account for some 80 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions reportedly have signed on to the non-binding political agreement.
Many of these are working to set up the mechanisms to parcel out adaptation money and to govern anti-deforestation, or REDD, efforts without any formal UN agreement.