The consensus-driven multilateral system cannot deliver on urgent climate action. What complementary pathways exist? A more nimble form of private diplomacy called “Earth Diplomacy” could lead the way.
By Gabriel Gomes Couto
The window of opportunity for humanity to prevent major climate disasters is rapidly closing, and the multilateral system is not responding quickly enough. Multilateralism is doing what it is equipped to do: negotiate global agreements that reflect the intentions and limitations of 198 parties (197 national states and the European Union). Looking for alternatives in parallel to this system, can private diplomacy help unlock alternative pathways for concrete, urgent climate action? To answer this question, this article proposes a much more nimble, action-oriented form of diplomacy to find the path of least resistance towards urgent climate action: Earth Diplomacy.
Despite 30 years of multilateral climate negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the world remains alarmingly away from the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. With the conclusion of the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP27), even in the unlikely scenario of all countries delivering on their promises, the planet will still be on track to a warming of 2.7°C by the end of the century. To stay as close as possible to the limit of 1.5°C of warming, carbon emissions must peak before 2025 and be reduced by 43% no later than 2030. The message is clear: discussions must shift from treaties to action, from agreements to concrete projects on the ground.
"Climate action is riddled with problems: conflicts of interest, both political and private, and of geopolitical competition. In peace mediation, private diplomacy is commonly used as a parallel track when official processes stall. Why not use it for climate change?"
However, since fossil fuels are not merely an energy source but a currency of power for states and elites, climate action is riddled with problems: conflicts of interest, both political and private, and of geopolitical competition. In peace mediation, private diplomacy is commonly used as a parallel track when official processes stall. Why not use it for climate change?
Earth Diplomacy: Applying private diplomacy to climate action
Private diplomacy is the mediation or facilitation support provided by actors who do not represent states or governmental organisations, such as the United Nations. The Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) is a quintessential example of a private diplomacy actor. An independent non-governmental organisation, HD has helped solve armed conflicts in some of the world’s most complex environments. The key goal of private diplomacy is to go where governments and governmental organisations cannot reach for political complexities or mandate limitations. Non-state actors have the comparative advantage of being smaller and usually cheaper than state actors. They can also have better access to hard-to-reach actors relevant to problem-solving, especially powerful non-state actors such as armed groups. However, private diplomacy is no panacea. It does not substitute official negotiations or multilateral mechanisms. Instead, it is an alternative pathway for when official tracks are blocked, and discreet channels are needed to resolve deadlocks.
If private diplomacy does not substitute official negotiations and multilateral agreements, why is it relevant, particularly in the climate context? The answer is three-fold:
First, private diplomacy brings experts together to brainstorm and test solutions. By not being strictly ‘official’ negotiations, private diplomacy provides key opportunities to include scientists, civil society, and private actors to devise and test solutions that can be feasible and legitimate. Climate solutions demand such close collaboration between policymakers, scientists, private sector, and civil society.
Second, private diplomacy builds quiet channels that can balance discretion and inclusion. Building safe spaces for discreet negotiations is fundamental for parties’ trust building. In private, connections can be made at the personal level, and institutional identities become secondary. Moreover, climate action often requires the cooperation of actors who might not have official relationships or who need to act beyond their mandates, hence the importance of discreet channels, in which ideas and proposals can be more freely discussed off the record.
Thirdly, private diplomacy includes hard-to-reach yet powerful actors. It is naive to think that state actors can single-handedly solve conflicts or climate change. Responsible for a major share of the world’s carbon emissions, the private sector is fundamental in the fight against climate change. Also, in many contexts, non-state armed groups and militias control natural resources and water sources. By finding ways to work with private sector actors and de-facto leaderships, private diplomacy is ideal for enabling environmental protection and climate action, even in complex environments. This is a gap that states and large international organisations cannot bridge for the high political cost often associated with engaging complex actors.
"Instead of focusing on making 200 parties agree to a global multilateral treaty, Earth Diplomacy can help devise and advance pragmatic solutions on targeted issues."
Putting all of these pieces together, this article proposes Earth Diplomacy as a new application of private diplomacy to remove obstacles to urgent, realistic climate action. In addition to a way of working, Earth Diplomacy should be established as an independent, nimble mediation outlet to connect actors and facilitate climate solutions. Instead of focusing on making 200 parties agree to a global multilateral treaty, Earth Diplomacy can help devise and advance pragmatic solutions on targeted issues such as the conservation of endangered ecosystems, restoration of degraded environments, construction of new green energy power plants, technology transfers, and many other key urgent areas.
International Geneva as a hub for Earth Diplomacy
From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to the financial sector, diplomatic missions, commodity traders, and many specialised agencies, Geneva is highly equipped to produce climate action. ‘Breaking silos’ is a common buzzword within the circles, it is now time to put it into practice. The city is always one handshake away from heads of state, CEOs, high-profile investors, directors of think tanks, and other powerful actors from all corners of the world. Its critical value relies on the quality of its connections to the real world through so many sectors.
Accelerating solutions for climate action can (and must) build on these networks, but scaling such efforts would require a more deliberate decision to make Geneva a capital for finding climate solutions through Earth Diplomacy.
About the author
Gabriel Gomes Couto is an Advisor for Sustainability and Climate Change at the Peace Dividend Initiative and is launching Earth Diplomacy as an independent project to accelerate climate action. Specialised in mediation, climate security, and environmental peacebuilding, he holds a Master’s Degree in Development Studies from the Geneva Graduate Institute.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.