bangkok climate talksA view of the climate talks in Bangkok. Can you imagine getting this many people to agree on anything more substantive than the lunch menu?UNFCCC via FlickrHere they go again. As delegates from some 180 nations gather yet again to try to make progress on negotiating a new climate agreement, they are beginning to feel stir crazy. After all, this is the fourth time they have met this year … with remarkably little to show for it. Wading through quicksand would seem easy by comparison.

Two things are different this time. One is that the meeting is being held in Bangkok; the previous three were in the less exotic city of Bonn. The other is that the delegates are assembling with the words of their leaders ringing in their ears. The hope is that the strong statements made last week during the UN General Assembly meeting on climate change will inject new momentum and political will into the negotiating process.

It needs to, for this is a make-or-break meeting. When delegates leave the Thai capital at the end of next week, there will only be five short negotiating days left — in Barcelona in November — before the vital conference that is supposed to seal the deal opens in Copenhagen in early December. And even Yvo de Boer, who as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will run the negotiations, admits that the negotiating text is “utterly useless” as it stands.

Fortunately, success or failure is not entirely being left to the formal negotiations. Vigorous efforts are being made to keep the heads of governments involved, and a series of parallel, high-level meetings are hurriedly being arranged to try to generate progress outside the sclerotic UN process. And at the heart of them is the increasingly active figure of Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, who, despite mounting political difficulties at home, has made pulling off a deal at Copenhagen a top personal priority.

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But back to Bangkok, where de Boer warns: “Time is not just pressing. It has almost run out.” A top-level chorus agrees. Danish environment minister Connie Hedegaard says; “We have talked for long enough; the world expects action.” And even the newly reelected German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, says: “When I consider what has to happen before Copenhagen, we cannot be happy.”

They’re right. If the delegates arrive in Copenhagen without resolving much of the present 2,500 disputed passages in the negotiating text, there will be precious little chance of an agreement. So the negotiators need to dramatically change pace. As Tove Ryding of Greenpeace told Reuters: “We need to see late nights and fights. That’s what these people do for a living. The need to smell like sweat and coffee. If they don’t do that, they’re not actually at work.”

But even if they do clear up most of the text, no one expects the big breakthroughs to take place in Bangkok or Barcelona. That was the point of last week’s summit in New York, which did move matters forward, if less than had been hoped.

President Hu Jintao promised to reduce the carbon intensity of China’s economy by “a notable margin” on 2005 levels by 2020. This was less than had been expected; Hu’s own chief climate envoy had said the president would lay out “the next policies, measures and actions that China is going to take”, and there was even speculation that he would announce a firm target.

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But the contents of the speech were less important that the symbolism. A Chinese president had travelled to New York to address the UN General Assembly for the first time in 40 years — and had chosen to do so on climate change. That alone signified how seriously his government was taking the issue.

The second advance came at a dinner UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon put on for heads of governments of the most polluting countries to meet their counterparts from the most vulnerable ones. Participants say that a sense of common purpose to tackle climate change was forged.

But the G20 summit in Pittsburgh put off discussions of new $100 billion annual fund to help developing countries deal with climate change, proposed by Gordon Brown this summer in an attempt to break the negotiating deadlock. Instead, they have been put back to the next meeting of their finance ministers in November.

bangkok climate protestA protest outside the UN climate talks being held in Bangkok.UNFCCC via FlickrThe good news is that these talks will be held under British chairmanship, which means that there will be a hard push to get agreement on the fund. And Britain is also to host a meeting of the Major Economies Forum in mid-October.

This reflects Mr. Brown’s activism. He has made Copenhagen a top priority, and is losing no opportunities to press his fellow leaders to do the same. A details man, unusual for a political leader, he is getting deeply involved in the nitty-gritty of what needs to be done. This is important, for UN climate negotiations rarely succeed unless a powerful, committed figure decides to make sure they do.

The British Prime Minister has been the first leader to announce he will go to Copenhagen, and he is urging others to join him; he is convinced that the deal can only be done at that high level. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is calling for another pre-summit in November.

An additional meeting and attendance by more world leaders will probably be needed … for the prospects for a treaty can certainly not be entrusted to the negotiators now meeting in Bangkok.