This article reviews the options for future international climate policy after the 2009 Copenhagen conference. It argues that a major reassessment of the current approach to building a climate regime is required. This approach, which we refer to as the ‘global deal’ strategy, is predicated on the idea of negotiating a comprehensive, universal and legally binding treaty that prescribes, in a top-down fashion, generally applicable policies based on previously agreed principles. From a review of the history of the ‘global deal’ strategy from Rio (1992) to Kyoto (1997) and beyond we conclude that this approach has been producing diminishing returns for some time, and that it is time to consider an alternative path – if not goal – for climate policy. The alternative that, in our view, is most likely to move the world closer towards a working international climate regime is a ‘building blocks’ approach, which develops different elements of climate governance in an incremental fashion and embeds them in an international political framework. In fact, this alternative is already emergent in international politics. The goal of a full treaty has been abandoned for the next climate conference in Mexico, which is instead aiming at a number of partial agreements (on finance, forestry, technology transfer, adaptation) under the UNFCCC umbrella. For this to produce results, a more strategic approach is needed to ensure that – over time – such partial elements add up to an ambitious and internationally coordinated climate policy which does not drive down the level of aspiration and commitment.