This study explores a situation of staged accession to a global climate policy regime from the current situation of regionally fragmented and moderate climate action. The analysis is based on scenarios in which a front runner coalition – the EU or the EU and China – embarks on immediate ambitious climate action while the rest of the world makes a transition to a global climate regime between 2030 and 2050. We assume that the ensuing regime involves strong mitigation efforts but does not require late joiners to compensate for their initially higher emissions. Thus, climate targets are relaxed, and although staged accession can achieve significant reductions of global warming, the resulting climate outcome is unlikely to be consistent with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees. The addition of China to the front runner coalition can reduce pre-2050 excess emissions by 20–30%, increasing the likelihood of staying below 2 degrees. Not accounting for potential co-benefits, the cost of front runner action is found to be lower for the EU than for China. Regions that delay their accession to the climate regime face a trade-off between reduced short term costs and higher transitional requirements due to larger carbon lock-ins and more rapidly increasing carbon prices during the accession period.