People ride motorcycles as haze shrouds the street in Indonesia
People ride motorcycles as haze shrouds the street in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan province, Indonesia, October, 2015.
Jessica Helena Wuysang/Antara Foto/Reuters

This week, at a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, the United States, Japan, and several other nations reached an agreement that will restrict financing for overseas coal projects. The deal will limit investment in the dirtiest, coal-fired power plants but will allow some continued investment in more efficient coal technology. Japan is one of the major sources of finance for the coal industry, so the agreement is an important moment in the effort to reduce global emissions.

This move, along with recent bilateral agreements the United States has reached with China and India, signals a significant strategic development in the process of tackling climate change, a process that has so far made only glacial progress. Until recently, countries mostly focused their efforts on cooperating within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The sheer number of issues before the UNFCCC, however, and the involvement of 196 parties in the negotiations have made it difficult to make progress toward greenhouse gas reductions. Increasingly, however, the United States has shifted toward supplementing its engagement at the UNFCCC with opportunistic deals cut with individual partners that focus on discrete issues where progress is feasible. This has been a much more effective strategy, and one that offers the best hope of averting the worst impacts of a changing climate.


Four years ago, in the pages of Foreign Affairs, we argued that the process of reducing global emissions was too dependent on the UNFCCC. UNFCCC negotiations involve more issues than most multinational talks, including weaning whole economies off fossil fuels, protecting disappearing forests, and saving the small island states that are likely to be underwater within a few decades. Making decisions in the UNFCCC is difficult because 196 parties are at the table—polluters, victims, and everyone in between—all of which officially wield equal weight. As a result, unsurprisingly, parties have found it difficult to conclude comprehensive agreements, and the world has made little progress in controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

Progress, we argued, could be made by unbundling the many issues contained in the UNFCCC process, following the example of the negotiations that gradually curbed the nuclear arms race. In the 1950s, countries tried to negotiate “general and complete disarmament” in the UN General Assembly, to little avail. But they later changed their approach by tackling discrete issues separately and by diversifying their negotiating arenas, expanding discussions beyond the UN to regional configurations and bilateral meetings. This resulted in a series of often opportunistic treaties, crafted when circumstances allowed, that solved particular parts of the weapons puzzle. The enactment and ultimate success of these treaties helped open the door to more such agreements, especially by developing mutual trust among nations that were then more willing to make further commitments. 

The most important bilateral arrangements were, of course, those between the United States and the Soviet Union. They managed to establish communications channels and protocols to avoid accidental disaster. Long negotiations led to substantial joint reductions of their stocks of operational nuclear weapons. And the relations established during those decades of conversations allowed the two countries to act quickly to contain nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union dissolved.

Residents collect fish at a drought-affected lake in Bac Ninh province, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, October, 2015.
Residents collect fish at a drought-affected lake in Bac Ninh province, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, October, 2015.
Kham / Reuters

Surveying the disheartening responses to climate change back in 2011, we argued that a deeper understanding of this history of the nuclear talks might help negotiators be more creative today in addressing the looming disaster of climate change. Fortunately, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is now showing some of this required creativity. As it continues to work toward comprehensive agreements at the UNFCCC, the Obama administration has also struck compromises elsewhere on discrete issues that supplement and in some cases catalyze the ongoing UNFCCC efforts. It has also reached bilateral deals with key partners, finding areas where mutual interests align, just as the superpowers did during the Cold War.

For instance, in November 2014, two of the biggest emitters, the United States and China, reached a climate deal with very specific commitments. The United States will cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent before 2025; China will peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and will aim to get 20 percent of its energy from zero-emission sources by the same year. By doing so, China implicitly chose to take public responsibility for its emissions.  

The United States has also made progress in bilateral discussions with India. It has followed a different approach, but one that is once again based on overlapping mutual interests. India’s commitment to reducing its emissions is limited (although it has agreed to cut its emissions intensity 33 to 35 percent below 2005 levels). But it is amenable to working with the United States toward the objective of fueling its development with clean energy. In September 2015, the two countries signed memorandums of understanding that will help them collaborate on mechanisms to finance clean energy projects in India and on methods to commercialize innovative off-grid clean energy solutions. And India has expressed a commitment to reduce hydrofluorocarbons, which have a large impact on global warming.

Successful U.S.-Japanese negotiations over limiting export finance for overseas coal projects are the latest in this sequence. Once again, negotiators made progress through bilateral discussions of discrete issues. And once the United States and Japan reached a compromise, other countries followed, albeit with some further changes. Not only did the deal bring two key countries together on a significant issue, but, as Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire reported, it was also “aimed at influencing other members of the OECD,” who this week agreed on common rules to phase out coal financing for export credit agencies. In this way, limited bilateral deals can build momentum for further agreements.


The latest round of UNFCCC negotiations will take place in Paris in a few weeks. Even the UNFCCC has been influenced by a new realism about how agreement can take place among disparate nations with a variety of development objectives and many differences in their systems of governance.

The logo of the upcoming COP21 Climate Change Conference on a Nissan LEAF electric car, near Paris,
The logo of the upcoming COP21 Climate Change Conference on a Nissan LEAF electric car in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, France, November, 2015.
Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The framework for this agreement is a series of commitments, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, by individual countries to reduce their emissions. Critics argue that this makes it much harder to compare national efforts, as each country’s plans can be quite different in their approach and their goals. And it is true that the system lacks the neatness of joint general pledges to somehow hold warming to, for example, two degrees Celsius. But countries are at least making considered assessments of their individual capabilities and very specific commitments. Once commitments for curbing greenhouse gas emissions have been recorded, the countries that make them can work together so that each pledge, and the actions required to achieve it, is scrutinized, successfully resolved, and eventually tightened. In this respect, at least, the Paris talks will be a success, although there may be more disagreements on other major issues.

During the nuclear arms race, progress toward reducing nuclear dangers often followed events that sparked popular concern. Alarm over the renewed Cold War of the early 1980s, for example, led to the “Freeze Movement,” which called on the United States and the Soviet Union to adopt a mutual freeze on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons. The movement’s influence on the 1982 elections in turn contributed to the decision of U.S. President Ronald Reagan to abandon his opposition to arms control policies and to negotiate treaties with the Soviet Union that banned an entire class of nuclear weapons. 

Similarly, the growing evidence today that climate change is happening—and that it has direct impacts on people’s lives, from more ferocious storms to the rising incidence of tropical diseases in northern climes—is causing a generational change in attitudes toward the seriousness of the problem and the need to take action now. Increasingly, individuals are changing their own behavior, by, for instance, installing solar panels on their homes and purchasing electric and hybrid automobiles. Local and provincial governments are taking more measures to reduce emissions, from Chicago’s green roof projects to British Columbia’s carbon tax. In the end, the problems of a changing climate will be solved only by the active involvement of the citizens of the world. The bilateral deals orchestrated over the last year by the United States and some of the world’s major emitters are a good way to begin.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • RUTH GREENSPAN BELL is Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Research Associate at the Center for Decision Sciences, Columbia Business School. BARRY M. BLECHMAN is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center.
  • More By Ruth Greenspan Bell
  • More By Barry M. Blechman