Can climate action by business and mayors save the planet?

CO2 cuts for a 2015 UN climate deal will fall well short of required levels, placing pressure on bottom up initiatives

(Pic: NASA)

(Pic: NASA)

By Andrew Jordan and Harro van Asselt

In the lead-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference, the French government and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have pursued a two-pronged strategy.

First, they have pushed national governments to be as ambitious as they can in their “intended nationally determined contributions” – even while recognising that the national climate plans (known as INDCs in UN jargon) would likely fall far short of an internationally agreed 2C warming limit, given known economic and political constraints.

So at the same time, they have worked to rally businesses, local governments and civil society to tackle climate challenges, building on growing momentum around the world.

Achieving international climate goals clearly requires action by nation states.

Encouragingly, new policies and measures have emerged at an increasing speed. Globe International’s database shows that around 30 new climate policies are being adopted each year, particularly in developing countries.

New policies are not limited to mitigation; the total number of new national adaptation strategies has also grown spectacularly in the last decade.

Such developments have assumed even greater importance knowing that each state will volunteer its own policy commitment rather than having it prescribed in a top-down international agreement.

Politicians are also expected to reinforce the need for non-state actors to share the mantle of leadership and help close the mitigation gap.

Paris tracker: Who has pledged what for 2015 UN deal?

The good news is that non-state actors are rising to this challenge.

In a new paper published today in Nature Climate Change, we examine the innovative approaches to climate governance that are emerging beneath and all around the UNFCCC – and the new challenges they raise in gauging climate ambition.

Initiatives by non-state actors have led to new standards for carbon credits, emissions accounting systems, carbon labelling schemes and collaborations between cities, among many others.

This trend is encouraging to those who have long extolled the advantages of “bottom-up” governance, believing it provides more scope for experimenting with new approaches, fits better with local priorities, and allows deeper citizen engagement.

It also feeds into a new political narrative of dynamism in a world disillusioned with the UNFCCC process.

Unlike international agreements, which can easily be held to ransom by a small number of recalcitrant states, leadership in a bottom-up system can emerge from multiple new sources.

The question is, can all these bottom-up actions help bridge the significant gap between the INDCs and a 2C pathway?

We believe the key to answering that question is to understand what is actually happening on the ground. All too often, over-enthusiasm creeps into discussions of innovation.

Take national policies, for example. We know that non-binding strategies are being adopted by states at a much faster rate than legally binding national policies.

And as there is as yet no international body responsible for collecting information, the world relies on a non-state actor – Globe International, supported by the London School of Economics – to confirm that this is true.

The same goes for bottom up forms of non-state action. The UNFCCC Secretariat, in collaboration with the Peruvian government, has taken the sensible step of creating a new web portal to collect data.

But much more needs to be done if we are to understand why and how non-state initiatives are launched and spread across the world.

We are also surprisingly ignorant about what the new forms of governance contribute by way of emission reductions.

The vital task of evaluating this is proving to be both technically complex and politically sensitive – so much so that the UNFCCC finds it is difficult to make definitive statements about performance. When it comes to evaluating individual policies, there is even less comparable data.

Monitoring and evaluation

This has significant policy implications.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the New Climate Economy report showed that the case for ambitious climate action can be made by stressing the co-benefits of acting, for instance in terms of human health, energy security or economic competitiveness.

But as timely policy evaluations are often lacking, politicians may not have the information they need. Unfortunately, politicians are also often unwilling to invest in independent evaluation capacities, in case they reveal embarrassing examples of under-performance.

Even less is known about the performance of non-state initiatives. Although initial analyses highlight their potential, evaluations of their concrete effects on emission reductions are still lacking.

At a minimum, such initiatives should incorporate monitoring and evaluation procedures. But in general, many do not.

More fundamentally, do they endure long enough to perform? Again, the emerging evidence suggests that many survive but some quietly sink, particularly after states withdraw support.

Many of the public-private partnerships adopted at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 have suffered this ignominious fate.

High ambition, delivery unclear

Climate governance has become considerably more bottom-up since 2009, and now spans many levels (from the international to the local) and combines private and public action.

The momentum created by bottom-up action should be cherished. Yet it has also become clear that top-down and bottom-up governance are considerably more interconnected than was originally thought.

This implies that the high expectations being placed on bottom-up action should be tempered.

We need to invest more time and effort to understand just how much we can expect from bottom-up action – and what roles national governments and the UNFCCC need to play to help realise the full potential.

Efforts to catalogue and evaluate who is doing what – seldom an immediate political priority – should be greatly enhanced, building on existing data-collecting activities both within and outside the UNFCCC.

Given existing knowledge gaps, it is too early to say whether bottom-up action can deliver.

Thus, we believe that raising the ambition of the Paris climate agreement needs to remain the top priority, even as we continue to encourage – and work to better understand – bottom-up initiatives.

Andrew Jordan is Professor of Environmental Policy at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

Harro van Asselt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Oxford. Follow him on Twitter at @harrovanasselt

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