Climate negotiators will meet again in Tianjin (China) on 4-6 October to prepare for the climate conference in Cancún at the end of the year. But there is little optimism that a new climate treaty can be concluded in the Mexican city.
EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, for one, predicts that talks in Cancún will be "very difficult" and expects an agreement to be struck in South Africa in 2011.
While forging consensus among more than 180 nations in the UN context has proved difficult and time-consuming, governments have been seeking bilateral partnerships to urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change urgently.
"Bilateral agreements may become more popular as the lack of movement in the US, in particular, slows agreement on comprehensive international action," said Jason Anderson, head of European climate and energy policy at WWF.
The US sent shockwaves among its negotiating partners when the Senate dropped broad climate change legislation from its agenda in June as it became clear it would not have enough votes to pass. Last week (21 September), a bipartisan group of senators introduced a stand-alone bill aimed at creating a renewable electricity standard (RES), in an attempt to rescue part of the wider legislation.
But despite the lack of domestic climate legislation, the country has signed cooperation agreements with strategic partners like Mexico, Russia and Brazil.
As a sign of the increasing weight of China in international efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the US signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing to enhance cooperation on climate change and energy in July 2009.
The agreement was fleshed out during President Barack Obama's visit to Beijing the following November, with a package of initiatives including the establishment of a joint Clean Energy Research Centre, an electric vehicles initiative, a joint energy efficiency action plan and a renewable energy partnership.
Washington has also started similar partnerships with India after the signature of a memorandum of understanding in November 2009 on enhancing cooperation on energy efficiency, clean energy and climate change.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has kept up the bilateral momentum, announcing last month that it would seek to partner with other countries in cutting emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants such as methane from landfills and black carbon from cooking stoves.
Outlining the agency's international priorities in August, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said its bilateral and multilateral partnerships "have taken on new significance in the face of shared environmental and governance challenges, such as global climate change".
The EU, too, has set up climate cooperation agreements with key partners and continues to include climate issues in its trade agreements.
The bloc has worked with China since 2005 in the context of the EU-China Climate Change Partnership, for instance.
Recent developments in the partnership include the signature of an agreement to establish a Europe-China Clean Energy Centre in January 2009. Moreover, the countries launched the second phase of the Near Zero Emissions Coal Project, which will see Europe financing a trial plant using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, during a bilateral summit last November.
"The trend for bilateral actions for climate protection continues and the EU also contributes in some areas," said MEP Jo Leinen (S&D; Germany), who chairs the European Parliament's environment committee.
He added that EU member states also plan to fulfil their commitments on climate funding for developing countries, especially fast-start funding between 2010 and 2012, through bilateral agreements. "This could also apply to technical support, technology transfer agreements," he added.
While industrialised countries have been focusing on setting up agreements to transfer clean technologies to emerging economies, developing countries have made arrangements to strengthen their front in the UN negotiations and to find solutions to reduce emissions.
For instance, China and India signed their first bilateral climate agreement to cooperate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy before the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009. The agreement included setting up a joint working group that will meet annually to coordinate policies and discuss issues in the global climate talks.
Such agreements have great significance as the two countries have the world's largest populations and account for a major chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions. China has overtaken the US as the world's top emitter and India follows fourth, although per capita emissions remain low compared to Western countries.
Deals to stop deforestation
In addition to overarching bilateral climate agreements, cooperation is also being forged on strategic issues like forests.
The climate negotiations already came close to a deal in Copenhagen on a mechanism for Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) by making payments to poor countries for protecting their forests. But as disagreements about other aspects of the treaty have led the negotiations to drag on, donor and tropical countries have started to create their own systems for preserving forests.
For instance, Norway launched in July a fund that is expected to deliver up to $250 million between 2010 and 2015 to Guyana for the South American state's efforts to protect its 16 million hectare rainforests. The Guyana REDD+ Investment Fund is managed by the World Bank.
No substitute for global climate treaty
But even if the world of climate policy appears to be becoming increasingly bilateral, experts in the field stress that ultimately these agreements will have to lead to a global climate treaty.
"We need one international agreement, with common rules and common procedures, preferably led by the UN, not just a bundle of bilateral measures," said German Socialist MEP Jo Leinen. But he added that bilateral agreements are a valuable addition to a binding global agreement.
The MEP argued that the EU should continue to include climate protection chapters in its bilateral trade agreements and support greenhouse gas-reducing activities in third countries. But such measures should be compatible with each other and ultimately be channelled into a global, multilateral agreement, he stressed.
WWF's Anderson agreed, arguing that bilateral agreements - particularly in the area of technology - could become a valuable tool under a global treaty. "Many initiatives around technology could be fully compatible with a future treaty, representing one way technology transfer agreements are put into operation," he said.