Six months from the start of a Paris conference where the United Nations hopes to complete a far-reaching deal on the climate crisis, negotiators meeting in Bonn, Germany this week and next are back to working on their unwieldy draft text even as the treaty's goals slide over distant horizons.
Christiana Figueres, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, optimistically compared Bonn's newly built venue to a construction site where people are moving in while the structure is still going up.
But as negotiators try to shape a tight, effective treaty from a jumble of competing visions and grim predictions, the question is whether this edifice is all scaffolding, or if it includes the girders to support a permanent monument.
Everyone involved understands that time is quickly running out to keep the world below the agreed target of warming no more than 2 degrees. If anything, the current path is heading toward warming of 3 or 4 degrees by the end of the century, and therefore the talks are giving equal attention to the question of helping poorer nations adapt to the inevitable damage that lies ahead.
Greeting the delegates, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister who will preside over the Paris talks, said this means the task has expanded to include the twin UN objectives of alleviating poverty and combating global warming. Divisions between richer and poorer nations have frequently slowed the pace of the talks, nearly derailing them last year in Lima, Peru.
The slogan, Fabius said, addressing his audience in French, must be "zéro pauvreté, zéro carbone"—the elimination of both poverty and greenhouse gas emissions from the world economy and its energy systems, all within a generation.
In Bonn, Fabius announced a meeting of heads of state and government in New York in September on climate change, to coincide with the UN General Assembly. Last year, a climate summit called by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets of Manhattan, lending some momentum to the diplomatic cause.
In addition, Fabius said that France would organize two ministerial meetings on outstanding crucial issues in Paris ahead of COP 21—the 21st such annual negotiating conference of the parties in decades of fruitless search for a solution to the climate crisis. The first interim meeting will be in late July, and the second in early September.
Gaveling a few new meetings to order is not, however, the same as hammering out an agreement, let alone building a whole new world economy without the carbon that fueled the Industrial Revolution. And all the expert advice the negotiators hear tells them that this construction project is behind schedule and over budget.
One group of about 70 technical experts presented the delegates with a report warning that the widely accepted target of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius may not be enough—with the implication that the wholesale, radical decarbonization of world energy systems needs to come even faster.
The warning came from a policy working group that is less sprawling than the famous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, which last year presented the current scientific consensus on climate change.
But the group, known as a "structured expert dialogue," speaks with nearly as much authority. It said its members recommended reinforcing the 2 degree goal, and perhaps even striving for 1.5 degrees Celsius.
"In the very near term," the report said, "such aspirations would keep open as long as possible the option of a warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and would avoid embarking on a pathway that unnecessarily excludes a warming limit below 2 degrees Celsius."
This was technically feasible, if only barely so, their report warned.
The evidence "has clearly shown that not only are we not on track to meet the long-term global goal, but the current emission rate is accelerating," they said. "Emissions need to be cut significantly and immediately, in particular to minimize effort and keep it cost-effective.... Prompt and decisive climate action is needed."
A similar lack-of-progress report came last month from the International Energy Agency, which found that the world is "no longer on track" to meet even the goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
"Indeed, despite positive signs in many areas, for the first time since the IEA started monitoring clean energy progress, not one of the technology fields tracked is meeting its objectives," the report said. "The future that we are heading towards will be far more difficult unless we can take action now to radically change the global energy system."
For years some scientists have been warning of the growing gap between the world's current emissions pathway and either a 2 degree or 1.5 degree target. Either goal requires the complete elimination of carbon dioxide emissions from global energy systems before carbon concentrations in the atmosphere double and the world busts its budget for carbon emissions. The only question is how quickly that decarbonization needs to happen.
The best hope for Paris, realistically, is to bend the emissions curve downward, with more actions to come later.
But later also means more difficult. Achala Abeysinghe, a climate specialist at the International Institute for Environment and Development, writes that delegates are expected to focus on earlier action rather than later to be sure a pact is effective, on binding targets rather than voluntary ones to be sure it is enforceable, and on having richer countries pay for the actions of poorer ones to make it equitable.
"The timeframe to Paris is tight," wrote David Waskow, international climate director of the World Resources Institute, in a blog entry noting the main objectives at the Bonn talks. "This negotiation session is one of the last opportunities to make progress before the big show in December."