IF THE Copenhagen climate summit was a complete failure, nobody told the President of the Maldives. As the gavel fell on a marathon all-night final session to end two frustrating weeks in the Danish capital last December, Mohamed Nasheed punched the air to celebrate the Copenhagen Accord - a limited, non-binding agreement that the United Nations chose not to adopt.
Instead, the UN chose merely to note its existence, leaving what was widely considered a weak deal with an uncertain legality. Even assuming it had been adopted, it was nothing like enough to counter the scientific projections that the Maldives' 26 low-lying atolls would be wrecked by rising sea levels.
Nasheed takes these warnings seriously. He has raised the idea of his country having to buy land from another nation to guarantee it a future. Amid the furious lobbying in the weeks before Copenhagen, his cabinet pulled off a most eye-catching PR stunt, donning scuba gear and posing for a photo on the ocean floor.
At the conference itself, this articulate former prisoner of conscience who led the fight to transform the Maldives from an autocracy to a democracy, again took on the role of the voice of the voiceless, fighting for the rights of the most vulnerable.
Yet here he was, jumping for joy over a deal that appeared to put this worst-case scenario in the frame.
'''You have to remember what was happening in the conference centre at that point,'' Nasheed told The Age this week.
''If Copenhagen had ended in failure, there was a danger that the entire UN process on climate change would unravel. We had to salvage something. The Copenhagen Accord was a lowest-common denominator agreement, but it kept the process - and the world - together.''
Three months on from Copenhagen there is little air punching, but Nasheed's interpretation is gaining traction.
No one pretends Copenhagen was a success; the farcical final 24 hours, in which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao studiously avoided being in the same room as US President Barack Obama, remains a testament to how unrealistic and poorly organised the conference was. But while it may be the forced optimism of those who have to pick up the pieces, there is a growing belief internationally that it was not the disaster it initially appeared.
Despite being pulled together in a backroom deal between Obama and leaders from the four BASIC developing countries - Brazil, South Africa, India and China - the adoption of the accord was blocked by only six nations. It could easily have been abandoned at that point. Many countries resented that it had been thrashed out and imposed on them outside the formal UN negotiation process. But 114 countries have backed up their initial support by formally associating themselves with the accord and 74 have submitted targets to cut or slow greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly 80 per cent of the world's emissions are included.
While no ground was made on emissions targets at Copenhagen, Nasheed says the accord had some points worth fighting for. Billions of dollars were promised to help the poor tackle climate change. A deal was in sight to limit emissions from deforestation. Crucially, for the first time major developing countries such as China and India volunteered on an international stage to slow emissions - a shift that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. ''It is a step forward, albeit a small one,'' Nasheed says.
Howard Bamsey, Australia's chief climate envoy and a veteran of UN negotiations, says the level of international support suggests the accord has moved on from its ugly birth to become a "living, vital and implementable" document.
Along with the progress highlighted by Nasheed, it broke ground by bringing developed and developing nations together into the same document and forging an agreement that the world needed to avoid 2 degrees' warming to prevent dangerous climate change. ''Each of these points might look quite small in itself, but when they are made together the foundations involved have changed,'' Bamsey told a recent Melbourne conference. ''Frustrating as the progress is, it is much faster than we have seen in other parts of the UN.''
What this growing optimism means for hopes of a future deal is difficult to read. The strength of countries' commitment will become clearer in two weeks, when climate diplomats from 192 nations gather in Bonn for the first formal post-Copenhagen meeting. They will turn up with a set of non-binding targets that if acted on, will, analysts estimate, still mean a temperature increase of at least 3 degrees this century - well beyond the common shorthand for a safe climate.
Australian National University environmental law academic Andrew Macintosh says the chance of avoiding 2 degrees' warming is ''diminishing rapidly'', and would require a Herculean effort after 2020, given current proposals.
But things have improved - we were looking at a 5 degree temperature rise; it may now be less than 4.
Given the hostility that bubbled over on the final day at Copenhagen, the diplomats will also turn up with a lack of confidence that countries can be trusted to do what they say they will do - particularly the US, still battling to agree on a climate bill that can get through Congress.
One thing is clear: after the over-inflated hype of Copenhagen 2009, expectations for the next big meeting - in the Mexican resort city of Cancun in December - will be down with the earthworms. Experts believe it may be another three years, at Rio de Janeiro in late 2012, and with the mandate of another US presidential election, before the possibility of a binding treaty to tackle climate change is revisited.
The major issue at Bonn will be grappling with how to deal with a rearranged world, one in which the grand gestures of the European Union - long seen as the leader in climate talks - have been supplanted by the hardened pragmatism of the US and China. The stand-off between the north and south - over whether the wealthy are really taking responsibility for their historic emissions by making significant cuts that will give the developing world a chance to break free from poverty - began to fracture at Copenhagen. At times the US was at odds with the EU and Japan, both of which had to contend with the unfamiliar feeling of being marginalised on the chaotic final day.
Larger fissures opened up within the G77 bloc of developing countries, with the giants in the BASIC group under pressure from an increasingly vocal collection of the least developed countries and small island states, who just want all the major emitters, rich or emerging, to get on with it. An angry group of African nations was seen to be spoiling on China's behalf, while the oil-rich nations of the Middle East opposed anything that would limit their ability to sell their resource.
On the final day the so-called ALBA group of socialist Latin American countries, led by Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, appeared hell bent on tearing down any hope of even a weak consensus. The G77 remained united on at least one point - that the industrialised nations have not lived up to their promises, and should be doing more.
Geopolitics aside, the other shift under way is the rise of clean technology, regardless of the political roadblocks. More money is being spent on low-carbon energy than on dirty fuels such as coal, creating a new mainstream constituency within large corporations.
A vocal minority aside, governments know this. They just don't quite know how to handle it. ''If anyone tells you they know what the world looks like in climate change diplomacy right now, they're lying to you,'' says Climate Institute deputy chief executive and long-time negotiators-watcher Erwin Jackson.
It leaves countries such as Australia and the US, which have legislation on the table but yet to be passed, in an uncertain position. Momentum for the international climate talks will have to come from what each country does at home. But climate change appears to be sliding from the agenda in Canberra, with no chance the emissions trading bill will be passed this year. The government has committed to a 5 per cent cut in emissions below 2000 levels by 2020, but stressed it was unlikely to go beyond that in the short term, adding what appeared to be new conditions for it to make a 15 or 25 per cent cut when it formally signed up to the accord in January. Most tellingly, it suggested that Australia would not increase its target unless climate legislation passed the US Senate.
Plenty of climate analysts believe this shifted the goalposts. Australian National University economist Frank Jotzo, a senior adviser on the Garnaut Climate Change Review, this week released an analysis that found Australia should be taking on a 15 per cent target to live up to the conditions it put forward last year. This view is broadly backed by other experts, including government climate adviser Ross Garnaut and Melbourne University environmental studies academic Peter Christoff.
Meanwhile, the world is still waiting to see what comes out of the US Congress. Heavy resistance to emissions trading, known in the US as cap-and-trade, has prompted a cross-party compromise bill that is expected to focus on boosting renewable energy and forcing emitting industries, such as power and transport, to pay for their carbon dioxide emissions in different ways. Climate change will not be mentioned much; the bill will be pitched as a means to create jobs and reduce dependence on oil. Whether this will win the support of the Senate - and international observers - is an open question.
The US Congress, and arguably Obama's preoccupation with the economy and healthcare, was a major roadblock at Copenhagen, but so was China's unwillingness to negotiate. For most of past year, no one took the world's largest emitter seriously when it said it would not be part of a binding deal, and that it expected the traditional industrialised powers to do much more than they had promised.
There has been plenty of commentary about China's obstructionist tactics, most notably from British Climate and Energy Secretary Ed Miliband. In an opinion piece written the day after the conference ended, he accused China of vetoing an agreement that the world cut emissions in half by 2050, despite this position having the support of most developing countries. It also blocked a commitment that industrialised countries make an 80 per cent cut by mid-century. It objected to what these goals implied - that Beijing would eventually have to take on its own reduction target if dangerous change was to be avoided. Instead China pushed for the developed nations to make an unworkable 213 per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2050.
China has a world-leading renewable energy program, an advanced energy efficiency target and a once-unthinkable target of reducing emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 per cent. But its soaring economic growth depends on coal and it has no plan to slow that.
Unsurprisingly, Beijing rejects claims it deliberately wrecked talks to embarrass Obama and guarantee a terrible deal that would be blamed on Western leaders. A report by a Chinese government research institute leaked to The Guardian said it spent the fortnight resisting a conspiracy by developed countries to abandon the existing Kyoto Protocol, which puts the onus for cuts on the rich.
The West and a growing number of poor nations respond that without China playing a greater role there is no solution to climate change. The argument about the definition of ''common but differentiated'' responsibility to clean up the mess remains the biggest roadblock to a meaningful deal. But there are broader issues at play here than just climate change, as China looks to gain leverage over the US.
Given this, Cancun is expected to focus on making progress where possible, including cutting tropical deforestation, giving the poor access to clean technologies, developing a climate finance system and setting rules for carbon markets.
But Nasheed stresses the increasingly dire warnings of scientists must not be allowed to be swept aside. He says pragmatism must not mean a lack of urgency in domestic steps to cut emissions. ''Cancun needs to recognise the rights of vulnerable countries like the Maldives to exist,'' he says.
''It is inexcusable to condemn a nation - not to mention the planet - to death because some countries want to carry on burning coal.''
Adam Morton is environment reporter.