Next Monday, climate diplomats will gather in Cancun, Mexico, for the 16th annual installment of global climate negotiations. Expectations are low following the partial collapse of last December's session in Copenhagen, Denmark. A global treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, seems years away and may never meet expectations. At best, Cancun will repackage elements of last year's Copenhagen Accord and pronounce them "building blocks" for a new global agreement. Nations may decide to create (without actually funding) a new Green Fund, but it may take years to mobilize resources and make the fund operational, and even then the Green Fund will not be a silver-bullet solution. Global climate talks have begun to resemble a bad soap opera - they seem to never end, yet never really change and at times bear little resemblance to reality. This is why climate diplomacy as we know it is losing its relevance.
Fortunately, a growing number of countries are now grasping that much of what needs to be done for climate change is desirable for other reasons. Stricter energy efficiency standards for vehicles, for example, lessen dependence on imported oil. Replacing inefficient coal-fired power plants saves lives by improving local air quality. Public funding to catalyze innovation in clean energy technologies creates jobs and improves trade balances. Reducing deforestation helps minimize natural disasters and empower indigenous peoples. The interest in these climate-friendly policies is not confined to Europe. Some of the global leaders are emerging economies such as South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, and China. We are witnessing nothing short of a global change in mindset and mentality. Green growth and low emissions development are becoming national priorities, not international demands. Climate change may not be the first rationale for nations adopting green-growth policies, but the climate benefits are no less real.
International diplomacy will still be needed. But to be useful it has to adopt a different style and morph into a new green-growth diplomacy. To get there, our conception of desirable outcomes must change. Traditionally, the main goal of diplomacy was to secure "international commitments" - formal promises of specific mitigation actions, ideally codified in legal agreements or treaties. In the new approach, economic policies adopted in Beijing or New Delhi become more important than what happens in diplomatic forums like Copenhagen or Cancun. Going forward, collaborative processes that help nations identify and implement opportunities for green growth, and thereby maximize the climate dividend, are more likely to yield tangible benefits than efforts to allocate global burdens. In short, we need to place less emphasis on international promises and more on domestic action, less on burden sharing and more on smart development policies.
Diplomacy needs to adjust in order to reflect the new "bottom up" (nationally determined) context in which cooperation will occur. Let me be clear: An ambitious and comprehensive "top down" global treaty that spells out the responsibilities of developed and developing nations for the next decade would be highly desirable. But this will take time. Global climate negotiations have become a lagging indicator - ratifying understandings that have been resolved at the national level or negotiated first elsewhere, such as in the G20 or the Major Economies Forum. Climate policymakers can learn a thing or two from trade negotiators, who understand the virtues of a network of bilateral, regional, and global partnerships, where progress in one place spurs action elsewhere.
Finally, we must relearn how we use the diplomatic tools and incentives at our disposal. In the past, America and Europe have linked various carrots and sticks to the successful conclusion of new international climate agreements. In the future, incentives like market access and foreign aid - as well as coercive trade measures when appropriate - should be tied to whether nations take ambitious domestic action at home, not whether they make international promises in global negotiations. Financial incentives in particular must be understood primarily as a means to accelerate action here and now, not as the prize that is offered in the context of a future treaty in which nations promise action in the even-further future.
Our sole reliance on old-style climate negotiations as the primary vehicle for accelerating global action must come to an end to make space for more flexible, collaborative, and action-oriented partnerships with developing nations.