Now it’s out in the open. Key government leaders and U.N. officials are finally, publicly admitting what they have long privately believed: there is no chance of concluding a new climate treaty in Copenhagen next month.

For a full two years the world has been committed to finalizing a new agreement to succeed the present provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, with negotiations in the Danish capital set to cap off the process. But the slowness of the cumbersome U.N. negotiations (there’s still no concise proposed text for a new treaty!) and the likely failure of the U.S. Senate to pass a climate bill this year have almost certainly put paid to that.

So those who have been driving most forcefully to settle everything in Copenhagen are now instead focussing on working out how just much they might be able to achieve in the six and a half weeks remaining until the conference ends. They are hoping, instead of finalizing a treaty, to draft a legally binding agreement on a “political framework” for one, leaving the detailed provisions of a Kyoto successor to be hammered out later and approved at another giant conference next year. And they are ready to provide their own text, if the formal negotiations should fail to produce one fast enough.

Last weekend the Danish government, which, as hosts, will chair the climate conference in December, convened a little-publicized, two-day crisis meeting in Barcelona, just before the last session of pre-Copenhagen negotiations opened in the Spanish city. Ministers and senior representatives from 23 crucial countries — including the United States, the main European nations, China and South Africa — attended the “informal talks.”

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They discussed a three-page “framing paper,” presented by Connie Hedegaard, the Danish Minister of Energy and Climate Change. The document noticeably opened by calling for “a successful agreed outcome in Copenhagen,” rather than a treaty, and asked them to “provide guidance” on “possible ways forward” to “address … contentious issues.”

“The Danes are getting desperate,” the head of one of the most important developing country delegations told Grist. After the meeting, Hedegaard said that participants had “a very constructive discussion” and had “got into the core of the deal.” But she admitted: “We will not solve every single detail in Copenhagen.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was blunter. “It is realistic to say that in Copenhagen we will not be able to conclude a treaty,” she said. “Copenhagen was supposed to be a post-Kyoto regime. Now we are talking about a political framework, and negotiations will drag out longer until we get a treaty.”

Her verdict has particular impact since, as Germany’s environment minister in the 1990s, she was one of those who did the most to bring about the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and has, since becoming head of her government, done more than any other world leader to push for a successor.

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And, as if to settle the matter, Yvo de Boer, the UN official in charge of the Copenhagen negotiations, accepts that it is now “physically impossible, under any scenario, to complete every detail of a treaty in Copenhagen.” But he adds that the conference “must deliver a strong political agreement and nail down the essentials.”

So what are those essentials? The framing document before the ministers spelled them out. The “outcome,” it said, “must be comprehensive, balanced, ambitious, effective and fair.” And it must include “ambitious commitments and actions to reduce emissions,” and “significant new” financial and technical help should be “made available to support developing country actions.”

In other words, the political agreement would need to contain all the main elements of the planned treaty: strong commitments by developed countries to emission reduction targets; action by developing ones to cut the rate of growth of their pollution; and a big, new fund to help the poorest tackle such emissions and adapt to the dire effects of climate change. That is still a tall order.

What is more, the Danes are determined that the key elements of the agreement must be legally binding, a view shared by Ed Miliband, the British Energy and Climate Change Secretary, who says he will “not sign up” to an inadequate deal. And both are anxious to keep up the pressure, even though a full treaty is not unlikely to be sealed this year.

Denmark has indicated that it is ready to produce its own text, and has made it clear that it will resist any attempt to slow things down. “The world can wait no longer,” says Hedegaard.

Miliband adds: “The most important commodity that we have is momentum. Things will go down to the last day at Copenhagen, I know. However, if we have to spend Christmas there, then we will.”

Read more about the Barcelona and Copenhagen climate talks.