With muted expectations for immediate progress but an increasing sense of urgency, United Nations negotiators convened Sunday in Geneva for a week of talks aimed at reaching a broad climate treaty by the end of this year.
The goal this week seems modest. It is to untangle the unwieldy documents produced in Lima, Peru in December, by the parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The maze-like roadmap to Paris they agreed on was full of forked paths and culs-de-sac.
As the negotiations' new co-chairs, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria and Dan Reifsnyder of the United States, put it in guidelines for the week, they want to produce a "more streamlined, concise, manageable and negotiable text."
The problem with that goal is that the Lima negotiators left the most complicated and substantive issues for this year, said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Geneva is just the first of seven weeks of negotiations in 2015, and over the past decades participants in the climate talks have taught themselves to defer decisions until the last possible moment.
"We have to change this tradition," said Peru's Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who presided over the Lima talks two months ago. The Lima negotiations had seemed close to collapse until, 48 hours into overtime, the delegates split some of their differences and finessed others.
"The last two days cannot be the only ones that matter," Pulgar-Vidal said, speaking at the start of the talks in Geneva. "We have to solve our problems along the way."
It is important to make rapid progress on the text, because Geneva is the only session of talks scheduled before May, the official date for putting the draft treaty on the table, according to Achala C. Abeysinghe of the International Institute for Environment and Development.
Environmental advocates have expressed impatience at what some see as foot-dragging.
"Many issues that could have been resolved in Lima were pushed into this year's negotiations instead," said Samantha Smith, leader of WWF's climate team. "That business-as-usual approach now puts a heavy burden on negotiators."
"We are now at the end of the line if we are to get a global agreement on climate change that is strong enough to change the current path," Smith said. "Scientists tell us global emissions need to peak and decline well within the decade to avoid runaway climate change. None of us, including negotiators, can afford to continue with business-as-usual."
The toughest issues are those that divide wealthy countries from poorer ones.
"The livelihood of people in the most vulnerable countries depends on an ambitious outcome, one at the scale of the challenge that we are currently facing," said Angola's delegate to Geneva in a statement submitted on behalf of the bloc of least developed countries. "Worse is even to be expected, if we do not act with the greatest urgency. We cannot rely on simple pledges. We need strong commitments."
These countries continue to insist on several points—some where there's an opening for negotiation, others less so.
They include whether poor nations should join the coming round of carbon-reduction pledges known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions; how to pin down rich countries' pledges of financial support for poor nations; and whether to compensate less developed nations for the losses and damage they suffer from climate change, caused mostly by industrial superpowers.
Pulgar-Vidal, who said he learned more about the art of negotiating during the intense Lima talks than in his whole career, urged delegates not to rehash well-worn positions any more—to do less speechifying and more negotiating.
"This is not a competition among us," he said. "We are one team for one planet."
Although the negotiators spend most of their time speaking in mind-numbing jargon about convoluted negotiating texts and intricately curlicued policies, their overarching objective has become ever clearer. It is to shrink greenhouse gas emissions, especially those from burning fossil fuels, to zero this century.
"This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, [changing] the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution," Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, told reporters. That will not happen overnight and it will not happen at a single conference on climate change," including Paris, she said. "It just does not occur like that. It is a process, because of the depth of the transformation."
That means that the negotiators are trying to write a treaty that will allow incremental steps right away, followed by increasingly stringent measures adopted over the years until the ultimate goal comes within reach. It doesn't mean that all the tough choices can be kicked continuously down the road.
David Waskow, international climate director at the World Resources Institute, wrote before the Geneva talks opened that success this week "means a narrowing down of options in the text, but also a greater understanding by the countries of the key decisions they will have to make very soon."
Perhaps none of the decisions will be as momentous as writing down the zero-emissions goal. Waskow and other environmentalists noted that even some prominent business leaders are calling for that to be enshrined in the Paris treaty.