Half a year before the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, negotiators are far from agreeing on key components of a global climate deal. As envisioned in the 2007 Bali Climate Action Plan (or “Bali Roadmap”), the summit in December is supposed to deliver a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which expires at the end of 2012.

Ever since Bali, however, progress in the negotiations has been slow. Only recently have the delegations entered full negotiation mode — which is necessary right now, the most pivotal year since the 1992 UNFCCC. From June 1 to 12, more than 4,600 participants — including government delegates from 183 countries as well as business, industry, environmental organizations and research institutions — met in Bonn, Germany, to discuss key negotiating texts that will serve as the basis for an agreed Copenhagen outcome. The gathering in Germany was the second in a series of five major U.N. negotiating sessions this year leading up to the Copenhagen summit in December.

Bonn did not deliver any major breakthroughs. Once again, there was little progress on agreement on how the three key cornerstones of a future global mitigation deal (binding economy-wide reduction targets for developed countries, mitigation efforts in developing countries, and finance and technology transfer from the first to the latter) could be knit together. Disagreement exists both on the governance and legal structure of the deal as well as the concrete numbers for targets and finance. Matters are further complicated by the continued separation of the two U.N. negotiation tracks. Since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal in 2005, country representatives negotiate future commitments in parallel processes: the UNFCCC track (which includes the United States) and the Kyoto Protocol track. The linkage between the two potential treaties is a bone of contention itself, with the European Union, the self-proclaimed climate leader, preferring one unified future negotiation track under an umbrella agreement.

In many regards, negotiations in Bonn ran on the spot: Developing countries refused to put concrete mitigation actions on the table, wanting to make them conditional on industrialized countries’ binding reduction and financing commitments. Most discussions tended to alienate developed and developing countries on issues such as aggregate emission reductions for richer countries. In terms of developed countries’ commitments, Japan upset many delegations with its proposal to reduce emissions by 15 percent until 2020 compared to 2005 levels (which equals an 8 percent reduction compared to 1990, hardly a determined step forward in light of Japan’s Kyoto reduction target being already 6 percent). The E.U. insinuated that given the low ambition of other countries’ reduction proposals, it will stick to its unilateral commitment of cutting emission 20 percent by 2020 but not increase it to 30 percent, which it had indicated it would do if other countries aimed high as well.

The key state among the rich countries is the United States. With more than 20 percent of current global emissions, the U.S. is essential for an effective climate deal. However, the U.S. at this point seems to be unwilling to put concrete reduction and financing commitments on the table before these are backed by domestic legislation. The Kyoto experience hangs like the sword of Damocles over the Obama administration. Many of its members were engaged in the Kyoto deal under President Clinton and confronted with his refusal to submit the treaty to the U.S. Senate where it never had a chance of ratification.

The change of the U.S. domestic situation between then and now, however, is a starting point for optimism. As a German proverb has it, “hope is the last to die.” The Waxman-Markey climate bill – the American Clean Energy and Security Act – that recently passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee aims at reducing U.S. emissions by 17 percent until 2020 compared to 2005 levels under a federal cap-and-trade system. Taking into account additional reductions in other sectors besides those which fall under the emissions trading cap and adding provisions that reduce emissions from forestry in developing countries, U.S. reductions in 2020 could be as high as 17 percent compared to 1990. If by the time of Copenhagen, the House has passed legislation with reductions close to this amount and the Senate has at least moved in this direction as well, the U.S. administration could come to the negotiation table as a leader.

The Bonn talks resulted in its most important deliverable: a draft treaty text for Copenhagen. The UNFCCC stipulates that a draft text must be on the table at least half a year before the signing of its final version. The 200 pages include all the different submissions, which make it extremely complex and at points inconsistent and contradictory; however, it also entails all key components of an effective, fair and equitable deal. It also includes a number of progressive and interesting ideas: registries or schedules for unilateral, conditional, and carbon credits-supported actions by developing countries; sectoral approaches as an important improvement from the current Clean Development Mechanism; proposals for the future structure of financing; and options for reducing emissions from deforestation. While negotiations in Bonn were slow, in the second week there was a sense of urgency amongst some of the key actors in both the developed and the developing camp.

So what happens next? The next U.N. meetings are scheduled for August 10 to 14 in Bonn, September 28 to October 9 in Bangkok, and November 2 to 6 in Barcelona. Delegations now have to refine and streamline the draft text, engaging on its controversial specifics. But these meetings of climate negotiators alone will hardly bring the major breakthroughs for the key challenges of establishing concrete reduction goals in all major emitting countries as well as deciding on financial funds and their governance. It seems inevitable that at some point, top political personnel, including governmental leaders, have to call the shots. After all, mid- and long-term decisions with the potential to trigger investments in the hundreds of billions of dollars are not made by environmental experts. The G-8 meeting in July in Italy, a high-level event initiated by the U.N. Secretary General in New York on September 22, and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in late September all provide leaders with important opportunities to make a real global pact on climate possible.

Most importantly, Copenhagen in December has to be on the radar of the key heads of state. Rightly so, there are discussions underway to extend the Copenhagen summit to break the threat of a final impasse. If Copenhagen can deliver agreement on all key provisions of the architecture of a global climate deal, we would have 2010 and 2011 to negotiate its details including technical accords, but also the real numbers in the tit-for-tat between developed and developing countries.

Bilateral meetings in the run-up to Copenhagen might prove to be essential as well. In a parallel to the Bonn negotiations, a top U.S. delegation discussed the issue with the Chinese leadership in Beijing, just a week before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headed a U.S. congressional mission to China. Both delegations came back impressed by China’s commitment to climate protection, the development of alternative energy systems, and the more efficient use of energy. It seems like the finger-pointing on one another’s wrong-doing finally has stopped. Remember: half a year before the decisive Kyoto conference in 1997, the U.S. Senate unequivocally approved the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, setting the negative tone for U.S. climate policy for years to come.

This time around, both the White House and a majority of the Congress seem to be determined to lead on climate change, both domestically and internationally. Whether they succeed, however, remains to be seen. But hope springs eternal.