Climate diplomacy: a beginner's guide

While COP21 in Paris is the crucial summit where a climate change agreement could be reached, it will be the culmination of ongoing climate diplomacy between different states. Brianna Craft looks at what's involved.

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Brianna Craft
Brianna Craft is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change Group
13 October 2015
US President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 2014. Bilateral meetings are a key part of climate diplomacy (Photo: US Embassy, The Hague, Creative Commmons, via Flickr)

US President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 2014. Bilateral meetings are a key part of climate diplomacy (Photo: US Embassy, The Hague, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Everyone is talking about climate change. In recent weeks, the news has been abuzz with political leaders from President Obama to President Xi Jinping and the Pope championing the issue both within and outside the halls of the United Nations General Assembly.  

Their actions reflect how climate change concerns are being increasingly integrated with the management of international relations or foreign policy. This climate diplomacy is increasingly in the spotlight as the conclusion of negotiations of the 2015 agreement set for Paris this December draw near.

But how does climate diplomacy actually happen? How are these interactions shaping the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21)?

Bilateral diplomacy – let's relate 

Diplomacy began as a primarily bilateral practice, meaning it involved a single state relating to one other. In fact, traditional diplomacy dates from Italy in the late 15th century. Ambassadors were sent to establish resident missions in states with which their home nations had established diplomatic relations.

Today, perhaps the best example of bilateral diplomacy in relation to climate change is the series of joint announcements from President Obama and President Xi Jinping. In November 2014, the two presidents announced their intention of working together to adopt an agreement in Paris and each specified actions their nations would undertake to reduce emissions.  

This bilateral deal between the world's two largest emitters was heralded as a game changer for the chances of adopting an agreement at the climate negotiations in Paris (COP21).

Multilateral diplomacy – bring on the parties

Multilateral diplomacy involves diplomatic relations between more than two states. Following the First World War, the frequency of this type of diplomacy rose substantially. Multilateral diplomacy is often subject-focused, bringing together states (here called parties) to reach agreement on how to move forward on a particular issue.

Where climate change is concerned, the primary forum for multilateral diplomacy is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. Formally defined, negotiations are discussions between officially designated state representatives designed to achieve the formal agreement of their governments.  

Though climate change was also a goal of the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals, it is through the UNFCCC negotiations that parties hope to formulate the 2015 agreement.

Summitry – where symmetry matters 

A summit is the coming together of heads of state to reach agreement. Though this form of diplomacy finds its foundations in the middle ages, like multilateral diplomacy it gained popularity in the first half of the 20th century. 

As you can imagine, summits are fraught with risk. Heads of state can be some of the worst people to attempt diplomacy. Due to their position, they are largely ignorant of the details of the treaty being negotiated, and the political implications of their role mean they often must achieve 'success' at the cost for reaching a good agreement.

While a well-orchestrated summit can add gravity and draw a tremendous amount of public attention to an agreement, a bad one can set diplomatic relations back a long way. Where climate change is concerned, the Copenhagen Summit of 2009 is a prime example. Though the Copenhagen Summit brought together more than 100 world leaders, it did not result in the expected legally binding treaty but an accord to "take note of" that was drawn up by a small group of heads of state.

The lay of the diplomatic landscape come Paris

All these types of diplomatic engagement will culminate in the agreement reached in Paris this December. And the French, as hosts of both the UNFCCC negotiations and the summit, are getting into gear.

Their actions suggest they are keen to learn from previous summits and negotiations. For starters, every effort is being made to draft the text of the 2015 agreement before heads of state are involved.  

A third iteration of the agreement's text has just been circulated ahead of another round of UNFCCC negotiations specific to the treaty. Should all go according to plan, heads of state will have little more to do than ratify the text upon their arrival in Paris.

By organising a series of ministerial meetings throughout the year, the French also seem eager to foster inclusion. Parties rejected the accord drafted in Copenhagen largely because only a select number of heads of state were involved in the closed-door meeting where the drafting took place. By involving a broader set of governments in these high-level meetings, the French hope the agreement presented to heads of state for approval will reflect a wider representation of worldviews.

Lastly, there seems to be a concerted effort to manage the expectations of what Paris can achieve. The two diplomats chairing the UNFCCC negotiations of the text said recently that it is not the agreement's ability to limit warming that will mark its success or failure.

Rather, a successful agreement is one that puts in place a process for all governments to ratchet up action over time. Climate diplomacy then will continue to shape the international effort to confront the issue far beyond Paris. 

Brianna Craft ( is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change Group and supports the Least Developed Countries Group in the UNFCCC negotiations. Some of this blog is based on a 'Diplomatic theory and practice' course run by the DiploFoundation.