Maybe Angela Merkel was just smart as usual when she declined the UN Secretary-General’s invitation for the 2014 Climate Summit in New York. Maybe the German Chancellor, being a self-proclaimed political pragmatic, sensed that the Summit would not produce any tangible results. Well, whatever, it is not my intention to discuss whether the results of the Summit were tangible or not. Or whether the event may have helped to create some momentum ahead of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the UNFCCC in Paris, in 2015, which is supposed to deliver a new global climate agreement.

Instead, I intend to argue that the approach of the Summit in general would have been better placed if it had focused exclusively on determined actors and partnerships that are taking the lead. The traditional strategy pursued in climate diplomacy has been to get all major emitters around the table and push them towards agreeing on greenhouse gas reductions. According to this logic, the climate negotiations are conducted in the spirit of disarmament talks: “If you don’t reduce the number of your weapons (read ‘emissions’) I won’t do it either!.” With the difference that, in contrast to disarmament talks, negotiators in climate diplomacy have nothing to threaten with…

Consequently, for almost 25 years now, ever since negotiations started on the UNFCCC, some good-willing countries (and an immensely active NGO community) have made tremendous efforts to convince a number of other countries that the world would be better off with a common (albeit differentiated) effort to combat climate change. For almost 25 years now, climate protection has been treated like a ‘burden’ that must be ‘shared’. And for almost 25 years now, this approach has failed to produce a treaty that is up to the challenge – and consequently it has failed to reverse the trend in emissions. In fact, emissions are growing faster today than ever in human history…

The UN Climate Conference (or COP 15) in Copenhagen, in 2009, finally exposed the basic flaw of the system. It provided ample evidence that it is simply not possible to move in unison on a contentious issue like climate change – where large fortunes are at stake, where powerful industries are threatened and where political careers can be gained or lost by the position toward this issue. That it is simply not possible to move forward by consensus in the framework of a treaty that comprises over 190 States with very different interests. This worked for a while thanks to public pressure and a very creative and effective civil society – but it does not work anymore.

It does not work because the need for consensus is deeply enshrined in the workings of the climate regime. This is not a coincidence: the opponents of effective climate policy had learned from the Montreal Protocol (on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer) that majority voting is dangerous, because that regime moved extremely fast in contrast to the glacial speed of most international environmental treaties. So they ensured that there was no majority voting in the Kyoto Protocol – the ominous ‘Rule 42′ of the Rules of Procedure on voting is barred every year from being applied by the COPs. With the result that EVERYTHING has to be decided by consensus. And since every country recognized under international law can join Convention and its Protocol, a handful of countries opposed to effective action on climate change effectively use every opportunity to block any meaningful action.

So what should be, what must be done in order to remedy this situation and achieve faster progress at the international level? Since there is no realistic possibility under the Convention and its Protocol to allow for a ‘breakout group’ that moves faster (because this would require consensus again), the global negotiations under the UN umbrella should be complemented with a smaller, more flexible, smarter approach under a strategy of ‘different speeds’ (see If the best solution, namely a global treaty involving all major emitters, is barred – at least for the foreseeable future – it makes sense to complement it with a ‘second best’ solution.

This, I would suggest, would be a worthwhile mission for the UN Secretary-General: to assemble those countries that are willing to move faster than the rest – call it an Alliance of the Ambitious, a Coalition of the Willing, or, the term I prefer, a Climate Club. I am not talking of one of those many clubs that have sprung up in the last 20 years and that are more or less harmless. Instead, I am thinking of a treaty where ambitious countries from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa unite to effectively combat climate change. Where climate policy is not seen as a burden and hardship, but as an opportunity for global prosperity that preserves our very basis of life.

Establishing a second track for climate diplomacy requires, of course, some careful consideration. I would like to refer to a study on the design of a possible club by Lutz Weischer and Jennifer Morgan that I commissioned when I was a member of Parliament in 2013:

– The question of membership: only States or also subnational actors? I find the latter very attractive – why not involve regional bodies like the states in the US, the ‘Länder’ in Germany or even big cities?

– The question of entry fee: in order to ensure that all members are genuinely interested in climate protection, membership could be made contingent on meeting at least three criteria out of a list of measures, e.g. caps on emissions, renewable energy or efficiency targets, phase out of coal subsidies of coal-fired power stations etc.

– The question of benefits: can such a club provide real benefits beyond the exchange of information or financial support? What about special conditions for trade in certain climate relevant goods for the members? One of the reasons why the Montreal Protocol was successful was because it established a club (or cartel) for trade in CFCs…

As a side effect, the formation of a climate club would have an enormous psychological impact: its members would reinforce one another’s resolution and the ultimate goal of stabilizing the atmospheric system. Such a club would restore much of the hope across our planet that our societies will finally begin to effectively deal with the biggest problem that mankind faces for its survival. The world eagerly waits for such an initiative!

This article was authored by Hermann Ott.