International Climate Policy after Copenhagen: Towards a 'Building Blocks' Approach

This article reviews the options for future international climate policy after the 2009 Copenhagen conference. It argues that a major reassessment of the current approach to building a climate regime is required. This approach, which we refer to as the ‘global deal’ strategy, is predicated on the idea of negotiating a comprehensive, universal and legally binding treaty that prescribes, in a top-down fashion, generally applicable policies based on previously agreed principles. From a review of the history of the ‘global deal’ strategy from Rio (1992) to Kyoto (1997) and beyond we conclude that this approach has been producing diminishing returns for some time, and that it is time to consider an alternative path – if not goal – for climate policy. The alternative that, in our view, is most likely to move the world closer towards a working international climate regime is a ‘building blocks’ approach, which develops different elements of climate governance in an incremental fashion and embeds them in an international political framework. In fact, this alternative is already emergent in international politics. The goal of a full treaty has been abandoned for the next climate conference in Mexico, which is instead aiming at a number of partial agreements (on finance, forestry, technology transfer, adaptation) under the UNFCCC umbrella. For this to produce results, a more strategic approach is needed to ensure that – over time – such partial elements add up to an ambitious and internationally coordinated climate policy which does not drive down the level of aspiration and commitment.

The current approach to negotiating a comprehensive, universal and legally binding global deal on climate change is unlikely to succeed. A strategic rethink is needed on how to advance global climate protection in the current global political and economic environment.
An alternative approach is the building blocks strategy, which develops different elements of climate governance in an incremental fashion and embeds them in a broader political framework. In fact, such an approach is already emergent in post-Copenhagen international climate politics.
The building blocks approach offers the hope of breaking the current diplomatic stalemate but remains a second best scenario. It promises no swift, short-term solutions, risks strengthening the logic of free-riding and may lead to excessive regulatory fragmentation.
A more strategic, long-term vision is required for the building blocks model to lead to the creation of an ambitious international architecture for climate protection and prevent the slide into a purely decentralised, bottom-up approach.