A Summit Underway in DC is the Future of International Climate Diplomacy

So the Paris Agreement has been signed. Now what?

That basic question is driving a UN-backed two day forum in Washington, DC this week. Elected officials from around the world, business leaders, the NGO community and academics are gathered for the first-ever Climate Action Summit. The idea is to catalyze action around specific proposals and partnerships to make the Paris Agreement come to life. Or, in the words of the conference organizers, “drive high-level engagement with global luminaries addressing plenary sessions on how to deliver on climate commitments and embed the transformation agenda across the globe in government, key sectors and among the general population.”

After Paris, these kinds of “action” summits will be an increasingly important feature of climate diplomacy.

The Paris Agreement, which was agreed upon in December and signed by 119 countries at a ceremony at the UN on Earth Day, April 22, is an unusual sort of international diplomatic accord. It was not designed as a treaty to be legally binding under international law, as were other climate accords like the Kyoto Protocols. Rather, the Paris Agreement was a high level political pact, based largely on the individual commitments to action by its signatories. These commitments are called the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) and are basically each country’s climate action plan that they brought to the table in Paris.

In Paris, countries also agreed to ratchet up their ambitions over time, to slow the pace of warming even further–and below the crucial 2 degree celsius threshold.


That’s the aspiration, but to get there, these commitments–and more–need to actually come to life. That’s where this conference comes in. Climate Action 2016 is the first big global gathering committed to strategies for implementing the accord. “As great as Paris was, as excited and inspired as we were by the signing on April 22, I think we need to wake up from the fog of success,” said World Bank President Jim Kim at the opening of the conference. “Political successes have to then lead quickly to action and implementation. Political agreements are critical but we have to recognize they are just the beginning. We have to regain that sense of urgency we all felt on the eve of COP 21 when we didn’t know what the outcome would be.”

A New Kind of Global Confab

The official UN process that lead to the Paris Agreement was very much an inter-governmental affair. NGOs and the outside community were given a voice, but at the end of the day the Paris Agreement was an agreement between UN member states. Still, implementing the agreement was always going to require the participation of all sectors of society–national and local governments, civil society, philanthropies, the business community, and more.

These kinds of conferences are what in UN-speak are known as “multi-stakeholder” events and they are going to become an increasingly common feature of the global effort to combat climate change. The success of these conferences will be measured not by the prose of official outcome documents, but by  the public-private partnerships that are conceived and new initiatives announced.

This is new. And the fact that this inaugural action summit is taking place in DC — with significant representation from both American civil society and the US government, including mayors, senators and cabinet secretaries —  is an important demonstration that the largest economy in the world is committed to these sorts of behind-the-scenes efforts to profoundly shift our current climate trajectory.