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  • Governing Climate Change
  • Polycentricity in Action?
  • Online publication date: May 2018
  • pp 27-96
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press


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Part II Actors and Domains of Governance

2 International Governance Polycentric Governing by and beyond the UNFCCC

Harro van Asselt and Fariborz Zelli
2.1 Introduction

The adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015 was portrayed by then United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as ‘a resounding success for multilateralism’ (UNFCCC, 2015) – after so many years of uncertainty had passed that many had begun to fear that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had become permanently gridlocked. Paris seemingly reaffirmed the centrality of the regime established by the UNFCCC in the international governance of climate change, and its ability to adapt to new challenges.

Although the UNFCCC can be viewed as a form of ‘monocentric’ governance (Cole, 2015; see also Chapter 7), in the three decades of intergovernmental efforts to address climate change, it has become increasingly clear that it operates as part of a polycentric governance system. Due to the physical and socio-economic interconnections between climate change and a range of other issue areas, institutional overlaps between the climate regime and other international institutions from other domains such as trade and investment, human rights, other environmental issues (e.g. ozone depletion and biodiversity loss) and specific sectors (e.g. aviation and maritime shipping) are inevitable. Scholars have variously pointed to the ‘fragmentation’ of international institutions in this issue area (Biermann et al., 2009; Zelli, 2011a), to the existence of a ‘regime complex for climate change’ (Keohane and Victor, 2011) and to ‘experimentalist governance’ (Sabel and Victor, 2017). In essence, all these terms recognise the increasingly polycentric nature of climate governance.

In this chapter, we systematically sketch the domain of international climate change governance from the angle of polycentricity, focusing on intergovernmental multilateral institutions. We pursue two objectives: characterising this governance system as polycentric, and then discussing to what extent certain manifestations of polycentricity have already materialised in this system. With regard to the first objective, this chapter begins by qualifying the claim that the UN climate regime is ‘monocentric’. This is followed by an overview of governance through several other intergovernmental regimes and organisations. In doing so, we illustrate how international climate governance itself can be characterised in terms of the first part of the essential definition of polycentric governance offered in Chapter 1 – namely one exhibiting multiple governing authorities that function independently from each other and set rules and norms pertaining to climate change. Next, and addressing our second objective, we assess the extent to which the domain of international climate governance exhibits the suggested features of polycentric climate governance outlined in Chapter 1. The conclusions summarise our main findings.

2.2 International Climate Governance by the UNFCCC

Much ink has been spilt by those seeking to describe the evolution of the international climate regime (e.g. Gupta, 2014; Bodansky, Brunnée and Rajamani, 2017). We certainly know much more about its limitations (e.g. Rayner, 2010; Victor, 2011) than we did 25 years ago. We now know, for instance, that although countries can set lofty long-term objectives (e.g. the goals to keep global temperature increases to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to stay below 1.5°C), this does not mean that when combined, the individual targets or pledges for the short and medium term made by countries will fulfil those goals (e.g. Rogelj et al., 2016). We know that differentiation between developed and developing countries has been a recurring challenge for the regime, often resulting in ‘dysfunctional North-South politics’ (Depledge and Yamin, 2009: 443; see also Chapter 18). We know too that although innovations in the regime have been possible, as witnessed for instance by the introduction of market-based mechanisms such as the Clean Development Mechanism, the rules of those mechanisms have had to be carefully designed to prevent countries and private actors from abusing the system (Wara, 2007). We also know that even though a compliance mechanism was incorporated into the regime through its Kyoto Protocol, it was not able to induce Canada, a country that was significantly off target and that ultimately withdrew, to comply (Zahar, 2015). We further know that reaching any agreement amongst more than 190 very diverse parties can be incredibly challenging, as was most visibly underscored by the failure to adopt the Copenhagen Accord in 2009. And finally, we have certainly learned how hard it can be to craft a regime that can keep one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States, fully on board.

Yet these limitations are all too often ascribed to a rather simplistic characterisation of the climate regime as ‘top-down’ and ‘monocentric’. Specifically, the approach adopted by the Kyoto Protocol is often wrongly referred to as a quintessential example of top-down international governance (e.g. Rayner, 2010). Under this model, legally binding targets and timetables are set to achieve a common objective in a coordinated fashion, and targets are backed by a strong system of monitoring and enforcement in the form of reporting, review and a mechanism to address non-compliance (Hare et al., 2010: 601).

However, the Protocol never fitted neatly into this ideal type: its legally binding targets and timetables were not imposed ‘from above’, but rather based on what countries were willing to put forward at the time; the Protocol’s common objective of 5.2 per cent greenhouse gas emission reductions between 1990 and 2008–2012 was simply the result of adding up those commitments. Moreover, although the Protocol strengthened the reporting and review system of the UNFCCC and put in place a compliance mechanism, the strength of either mechanism is debatable (Oberthür, 2014; Zahar, 2015). Conversely, the Copenhagen Accord is often seen as an example of a ‘bottom-up’ approach, characterised by limited or no global coordination, with countries’ efforts based on what they are willing to unilaterally commit to, with no strong international mechanism to hold them to account (Hare et al., 2010: 609). Yet this characterisation is also overdrawn. While the Copenhagen Accord asked countries to make unilateral emission reduction pledges that were not the outcome of multilateral negotiations, the Cancún Agreements anchored the Accord’s pledge-and-review system in the UNFCCC by elaborating the international reporting and review system developed under the Convention.

In short, the climate regime has always been a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up elements, though it is fair to say that elements of bottom-up climate governance – such as non-legally binding pledges – have gradually moved to the fore. The Paris Agreement both exemplifies and formalises this shift, effectively extending it out to the post-2020 period (Bodansky, 2016). Under the Agreement, countries are no longer subject to legally binding emission reductions as developed countries were under the Kyoto Protocol; instead, the system pins its hopes on a series of procedural obligations and an institutional mechanism to ratchet up national ambitions over time (Bodansky, 2016; Rajamani, 2016).

This ambition mechanism is expected to function roughly as follows: (1) a long-term temperature goal (to stay below a temperature increase of 2°C and to pursue efforts to stay below 1.5°C) and a goal of net zero carbon emissions between 2050 and 2100 determine the ‘direction of travel’; (2) countries submit new pledges (known as ‘nationally determined contributions’, or NDCs) in five-yearly cycles; (3) new NDCs will have to go beyond previous ones and have to reflect a country’s highest possible ambition; and (4) countries’ efforts are subject to various types of (periodic) review, including a review of implementation through an ‘enhanced transparency framework’ (see also Chapter 12); a review of compliance through an implementation and compliance mechanism; and a review of overall progress through a five-yearly ‘global stocktake’, starting in 2023. Through an iterative process of submitting and reviewing NDCs, it is hoped, the international community will eventually achieve the Agreement’s long-term objectives.

Like the Copenhagen Accord before it, the Paris Agreement is not purely monocentric. But to what extent can the wider international climate governance architecture be considered polycentric? In a first step towards answering this question, the next section shows that the UNFCCC is not the only multilateral international institution addressing climate change.

2.3 International Climate Governance beyond the UNFCCC

Under the definition of polycentric governance put forward in Chapter 1, multiple centres of decision-making authority govern the same problem. In the domain of international governance, this can be observed in practice, with a variety of international institutions beyond the UNFCCC governing climate change directly and indirectly. To illustrate this diversity, this section reviews the main intergovernmental regimes that have begun to address climate change, looking specifically at international environmental, economic, human rights and sectoral institutions.

2.3.1 Other International Environmental Institutions

The causes and impacts of climate change are physically intertwined with various other environmental problems. For example, biodiversity loss can be exacerbated if ecosystems cannot adapt to climate impacts. Yet ecosystems also play a key role in climate change mitigation by either releasing or sequestering carbon (CBD Secretariat, 2009). Formal acknowledgement of these interlinkages has helped to trigger a flurry of activity related to climate change in other international environmental regimes. For example, Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have adopted a series of decisions addressing biodiversity–climate linkages, among others by proposing biodiversity-related safeguards that should be adopted in the implementation of REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) (van Asselt, 2014).

There are also complex interlinkages between climate change and the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion, with some ozone-depleting substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as well as its substitutes, acting as greenhouse gases. By directly tackling CFCs, the Montreal Protocol’s mitigation benefits have been estimated to be larger than those of the Kyoto Protocol (Velders et al., 2007). Yet some of its benefits threaten to be negated, as the Montreal Protocol offered incentives through its Multilateral Fund to switch to substitutes – first hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and later hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – that also have significant global warming potential. In the end, parties to the Protocol managed to agree on an amendment to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs (in 2007), followed by an amendment to phase out HFCs (in 2016). The latter, achieved through the Kigali Amendment adopted in the wake of the Paris Agreement, could avoid up to 0.5°C of warming by 2050 (Xu et al., 2013).

2.3.2 International Economic Institutions

Climate change is as much an economic as it is an environmental problem, making various international economic institutions highly relevant for international climate governance. The Group of 20 (G20), a coalition of large economies that is primarily focused on international finance and economic development, is one such institution. Its activities in the area of climate change include its 2009 pledge to ‘rationalise and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption’, which helped raise the issue of fossil fuel subsidy reform on the international political agenda, and moved forward activities by other international organisations in this area (van Asselt and Skovgaard, 2016). In addition, the G20 has played a role in strengthening promises to provide climate finance to developing countries (Kirton and Kokotsis, 2015).

Another relevant economic institution is the international trade regime. International trade agreements have at times been viewed as constraining mitigation ambition through a ‘chilling effect’ on climate policies (Zelli and van Asselt, 2010), as countries may adopt a variety of climate policy measures that may impinge on international trade. And while no rules directly pertaining to climate change have been agreed under the international regime established by the World Trade Organization (WTO), international trade agreements could conceivably also contribute to climate objectives, for instance by liberalising trade in climate-friendly goods and services (Droege et al., 2016).

Finally, a range of international financial institutions play an important role in tackling climate change. A prime example is the World Bank, which hosts several funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation (e.g. the Climate Investment Funds), and which has become a focal point for international initiatives to promote the uptake of market-based instruments such as the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition.

2.3.3 International Human Rights Institutions

Climate change – and policies adopted in response – can affect a wide range of human rights, from the right to a healthy environment to the right to life (e.g. McInerney-Lankford, Darrow and Rajamani, 2011). As such, the issue has been on the agenda of various human rights institutions since the late 1990s. For instance, the Human Rights Council has adopted various decisions throughout the past decade (e.g. HRC, 2015), the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights has advocated for adopting a rights-based approach to climate change (OHCHR, 2015), and several Special Rapporteurs have argued that addressing climate change is required under international human rights law (Knox, 2016).

Related to this are various international institutions addressing refugees and migration. Although the labelling of people subject to climate-induced displacement as ‘climate refugees’ or ‘climate migrants’ remains controversial (Mayer, 2016b), the mandate of two of the main international institutions governing refugees – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration – was expanded to include climate-related issues (Hall, 2016).

2.3.4 International Transport Institutions

The international climate regime covers greenhouse gas emissions from all sources in principle, but it singles out two sectors because their emissions take place, in part, beyond the territorial boundaries of states: international aviation and maritime shipping. Aviation emissions are still small but growing rapidly, mainly due to the increasing demand for air travel (Lee et al., 2009), while shipping emissions are also forecasted to grow without any additional measures in place (IMO, 2009). The Kyoto Protocol (Article 2.2) requested developed countries to negotiate new rules to regulate the sectors through their respective international organisations, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). A similar call was not repeated in the Paris Agreement, but it is likely that any action to address the emissions of these so-called bunker fuels will emanate from the two specialised organisations (Martinez Romera, 2016).

Although progress in both organisations was slow for many years, ICAO eventually adopted a series of measures, including a global goal of improving annual average fuel efficiency by 2 per cent and an aspirational goal of keeping global carbon emissions from 2020 onwards at the same level (i.e. ensuring carbon-neutral growth). In October 2016, within a year of the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the organisation adopted a market-based mechanism – the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation – to offset emissions growth in the sector from 2020 onwards.

Like ICAO, the IMO has adopted a series of measures to address shipping emissions. Following a series of studies, members adopted the mandatory Energy Efficiency Design Index for new ships in 2011, as well as the Ship Energy Efficiency Management Plan for all ships. The measures are expected to yield a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions, with an IMO study estimating an annual reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of 13–23 per cent compared to business as usual between 2020 and 2030 (Bazari and Longva, 2011).

2.4 Polycentricity in International Climate Governance

The previous sections show that the domain of international climate governance is characterised by multiple institutions governing the same problems. This section now turns to our second objective. We discuss to what extent the five propositions on implications of polycentricity put forward in Chapter 1 – local action, mutual adjustment, experimentation, building trust and overarching rules – have materialised in the domain of international governance.

2.4.1 Local Action

The first proposition suggests that local action will take off in a polycentric governance system. A key question here is: do international regimes (notably the UN climate regime) drive this development (and, if so, how), or does local action emerge fully from the bottom up?

Some suggest that the international climate regime is a driver of climate initiatives at other levels of governance. For instance, observing a ‘substantial increase in climate legislation and strategies’ between 2007 and 2012, Dubash et al. (2013: 662) speculate that ‘the international negotiating process may have exerted some influence’. They specifically refer to the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties (COP), which led to a variety of new emission reduction pledges by states (see Chapter 3). Studies of transnational climate governance initiatives likewise document how the number of initiatives has increased since the mid-2000s – a period characterised by dissatisfaction with the limited progress made under the UNFCCC, and thus negative signals from the global level (Hoffmann, 2011; Bulkeley et al., 2014; see also Chapter 4). Hickmann (2017: 445) suggests what is taking place is a reconfiguration of authority, in which ‘the effective operation of transnational climate initiatives relies on the existence of an international regulatory framework created by national governments’. These various studies offer some evidence – at an aggregate level – that the international climate regime helps to drive action at other levels of governance, which is a slightly different dynamic than what is assumed in polycentric thinking.

However, the causal mechanisms behind this assertion deserve more attention, particularly with respect to actions by non-state and subnational actors. For some non-state actors, Green (2008) has suggested that their actor involvement may be a consequence of delegation – in her case, of specific tasks to ensure the functioning of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. By contrast, Abbott has argued that a key mode of governance through which the international regime can steer national governments and non-state actors is that of orchestration, with one actor (i.e. the orchestrator) enlisting other actors (i.e. intermediaries) to achieve its governance goals (Abbott, 2012; see Chapter 11). Taking his work forward, Hale and Roger (2014) show that international organisations such as the World Bank have indeed played a key role as orchestrators of new climate initiatives.

Whether and for how long the UNFCCC – the COP or the secretariat – has been an orchestrator is an open question (though they could be; see Chapter 11), but it is undeniable that climate action by non-state and subnational actors has become an important part of the intergovernmental discussions before and after the adoption of the Paris Agreement (see also Chapter 4). Before Paris, the role of non-state and subnational action came into the spotlight through a new technical examination process, known as the Non-state Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), which registers non-state and subnational commitments, and the establishment of an ‘Action Agenda’ to encourage and support new initiatives. The Paris COP strengthened the connections between international governance on the one hand and non-state and subnational climate governance on the other. Although the Paris Agreement itself says remarkably little about non-state and subnational action (Chan, Brandi and Bauer, 2016), the decision adopting the Agreement encourages such action by prolonging the technical examination processes up to 2020, calling for an annual ‘high-level event’ to take stock of non-state action and announce new initiatives, and appointing two ‘high-level champions’ to ensure the successful execution of existing non-state actions as well as encourage new actions (UNFCCC, 2016a).

In short, the international regime has exerted at least some influence on the emergence of national, private, subnational and transnational climate governance. But how much influence it exerts – especially compared to other possible driving factors, such as competitiveness or moral concerns, reaping co-benefits, etc. (Jordan et al., 2015) – and through precisely what causal mechanisms remains unclear.

2.4.2 Mutual Adjustment

The next proposition is that units will develop collaborations with each other, leading to ‘mutual adjustment’. This raises the question: to what extent can we observe such spontaneous collaboration in the domain of international governance? And if so, why and how does it take place?

To our knowledge, the phrase ‘mutual adjustment’ – i.e. activities to order the relationships among governing units (Ostrom, 1972) – has not been applied or explored in the context of international institutions directly or literally, but we see clear parallels with a long-standing body of literature exploring how and with what effects international institutions interact with each other (e.g. Young, 2002; Oberthür and Gehring, 2006; see also Chapter 10). Specifically, mutual adjustment could in principle take the form of what Oberthür (2009) calls ‘interplay management’ – a term with admittedly monocentric connotations – which can be carried out unilaterally through individual institutions, but also jointly by the various institutions involved.

A first indication of mutual adjustment is the awareness displayed by drafters of other agreements through the making of cross-references to other treaties. Indeed, Kim (2013: 988) suggests this is evidence of a ‘rather cohesive polycentric legal structure that forms the backbone of the international environmental governance system’. For instance, drafters of the UNFCCC were well aware of the potential overlap with the ozone regime when they limited the scope to ‘greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol’ (e.g. UNFCCC, Article 4.1(b)). They also acknowledged the overlap with international trade rules when they suggested that ‘[m]easures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a means of arbitrary or unjustifiable discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade’ (UNFCCC, Article 3.5). As mentioned earlier, the Kyoto Protocol explicitly singled out ICAO and the IMO to address aviation and shipping emissions. And, more recently, the Paris Agreement (preamble) called on its parties to ‘respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights’.

However, mutual adjustment goes well beyond what is specified in the constituent treaties of each regime. It can also be shaped by decisions taken by the governing bodies of different regimes. Parties to the CBD, for example, have adopted a series of decisions on biodiversity and climate change. Some of those decisions were taken in response to ongoing developments on issues of importance for biodiversity conservation in the UNFCCC, notably the development of rules on REDD+ (van Asselt, 2014). In turn, by conducing bargaining amongst great powers, several intergovernmental arrangements helped enhance the legitimacy of UN climate negotiations and reinvigorated the political dialogue therein. An example is the G20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017, which reaffirmed the support of 19 members for the Paris Agreement in spite of the announcement by the United States of its withdrawal (see also Chapter 19).

Other possible forms of mutual adjustment include the coordination of scientific research, such as collaboration between the scientific bodies of the climate and ozone regimes, and cooperation between the bureaucracies of regimes, such as the Joint Liaison Group bringing together the secretariats of the Rio Conventions (van Asselt, 2014).

We can thus observe mutual adjustment in practice to some extent. Yet this small sample does not tell us much yet about why mutual adjustment takes place. There are no comprehensive studies explaining the drivers of mutual adjustment, though the role of some actors in specific cases has been highlighted. For instance, efforts to link climate change and human rights in the UNFCCC came at the insistence of small island developing states and several non-governmental organisations, who grew weary of the lack of progress under the UNFCCC and instead preferred working through human rights institutions (Limon, 2009). Moreover, following continued advocacy by various human rights bodies and actors, the Paris Agreement referred to a range of human rights in its preamble (Mayer, 2016a). In the case of the climate–biodiversity regime overlap, Jinnah (2011) suggests that actors in the biodiversity regime – including the CBD secretariat and its leadership – played a key role in ensuring that the new rules developed under the climate regime would include adequate biodiversity safeguards, mobilising support for decisions taken by the CBD COP.

By contrast, the impacts of climate change (policies) on biodiversity have not received any sustained attention from the decision-making bodies (van Asselt, 2014). This shows that adjustment is not always ‘mutual’, and points to the potential existence of cases that do not confirm this proposition. Likewise, there are a series of cases where relationships between the UNFCCC and other intergovernmental arrangements were marked by competition and delegitimation, for instance the now-defunct Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (van Asselt, 2014; see also Chapter 19).

While polycentric governance theory cannot fully explain variations in mutual adjustment, let alone the absence or opposite thereof, international relations scholars referred to a series of theoretical traditions to make sense of differences across inter-institutional relations. Scholars like Keohane and Victor (2011), Stokke (2012), Van de Graaf (2013) and Zelli (2011b) drew largely on neo-liberal institutionalism to explain the strategic behaviour of actors across institutions such as forum-shopping or creating rivalling institutions that better suit their interests. Whereas such rationalist approaches have their strengths in analysing institutional conflicts, other theoretical frameworks, especially those building on functionalist or differentiation theories, are better suited for explaining incidents of mutual adjustment and cross-institutional synergy. Gehring and Faude (2013), for instance, expect that institutional competition may ultimately lead to optimisation in goal attainment and hence to new functional divisions of labour. Such approaches notwithstanding, the different literatures can still do more to build on each other and to root the study of inter-institutional relations more theoretically.

2.4.3 Experimentation

The third proposition suggests that experimentation can spur governance innovation and learning. This raises the question: to what extent is international climate governance conducive to experimentation?

The international climate regime is not commonly viewed as a source of experimentation. On the contrary, it is usually seen as a rigid and inflexible approach to the governance of a wicked problem. As Cole (2015: 115) puts it, for instance, the UNFCCC ‘seems remarkably resistant to change, let alone replacement’. However, just as the characterisation of the UNFCCC as purely monocentric is incorrect, it is also too simplistic to suggest that the international climate regime cannot lead to experimentation in governance. Indeed, governance experiments have emerged from the regime itself. The Kyoto Protocol’s market-based mechanisms are a case in point: they offered the first attempt to establish an international market for trading emission reductions (see also Chapter 6). More recently, the development of rules for REDD+ under the UNFCCC can be viewed as a way to try a novel approach to a problem – deforestation – that has for decades defied international solutions.

The broad approach to climate governance the Paris Agreement signifies (and seeks to encourage) can also be labelled experimental, since a larger spectrum of measures can now be tried out by a much wider array of parties, and because outcomes are to be systematically assessed. Some have accordingly labelled the Agreement’s pledge-and-review approach a ‘high stakes experiment’ in multilateral cooperation (Doelle, 2016). Some of the features of the Agreement – such as the global stocktake – are a novel way of assessing the impact of the regime, and could provide opportunities for parties and other actors to learn about what works and what does not. However, to what extent these features will truly result in governance innovation and encourage learning among states and non-state actors remains to be seen.

2.4.4 Building Trust

The fourth proposition suggests that polycentricity will help build trust. One question in this regard is: how do intergovernmental institutions act as a ‘trust catalyst’ (Dorsch and Flachsland, 2017)?

For international cooperation, the UNFCCC can probably be viewed as the key institution for trust-building. It helps engender trust through the establishment and maintenance of relationships between various actors (Vogler, 2010). Although hard to measure, the ongoing interactions between government officials, business leaders, civil society representatives, scientists and other actors taking place under the umbrella of UNFCCC meetings at least twice a year arguably help build trust among these actors. It can be hard to build trust in a multilateral institution given the number of participants involved. Some have suggested that ‘minilateral’ institutions – involving a limited set of participants such as major emitters – could overcome this problem (see also Chapter 19). However, minilateralism may also erode the hard-earned trust of participants in the multilateral institution if the minilateral forum is set up to undermine the goals and principles of the multilateral venue (van Asselt, 2014).

One way in which international regimes can help build trust is through their mechanisms to monitor and evaluate the extent to which parties live up to their commitments. In this regard, the infrastructure for reporting and review (i.e. their transparency arrangements) established by the UNFCCC, and refined over the years, is of crucial importance (Aldy, 2014). Following the Paris Agreement, all countries should report on their emissions, as well as the actions taken to implement their NDCs. Moreover, and equally important for building trust, reporting and review also covers the provision of climate finance (Roberts and Weikmans, 2017).

Existing transparency arrangements continue to face problems that may hamper the assessment whether trust is warranted or not. For instance, the reporting record is still patchy – particularly due to capacity challenges in developing countries – and the reviews often abstain from evaluative judgments about a country’s performance because they are deemed ‘too political’ (Gupta and van Asselt, 2017; see also Chapter 12). Nonetheless, the transparency arrangements offer a carefully crafted overview of countries’ greenhouse gas emissions and the policies put in place to address climate change. In doing so, they help instil trust and confidence that parties are at least implementing their commitments.

The international climate regime could further act as a trust catalyst by helping to monitor and evaluate the progress made by the variety of governance experiments by non-state and subnational actors (Stewart, Oppenheimer and Rudyk, 2013; Ostrom, 2014). The 2016 Marrakech Partnership – the most recent incarnation of the Action Agenda under the UNFCCC – offers an indication that it may do so by tracking progress through the NAZCA platform (UNFCCC, 2016b). However, there is a risk that too much oversight may have the counterproductive effect of stifling the emergence of new initiatives and/or undermining the performance of existing ones (Chan et al., 2015).

2.4.5 Overarching Rules

The last proposition examined here suggests that local initiatives work best when bound by a set of overarching rules that specify goals and/or allow for resolution of conflicts. One of the questions here is: do international institutions put in place such rules and, if so, what form do they take?

Oberthür (2016: 11) notes that the goals and objectives of the UNFCCC can be said to play a key role in the development of an overarching set of rules for the whole governance system. While originally the UNFCCC’s broad goal was to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at a level that would avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ (UNFCCC, Article 2), this proved too general; hence, over time, more specific guidance has had to be issued. Initially, this was done through the gradual embrace of the 2°C goal, although this particular goal did not emanate from the UNFCCC as such – the European Union and the Group of 8 (G8) played a key role in promoting the objective well before its inclusion in the Copenhagen Accord (Jaeger and Jaeger, 2011). More recently, however, the Paris Agreement has offered even more guidance, by not only promoting the goal to stay well below 2°C but also adding the 1.5°C goal.

The goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions during the second half of this century also offers further specificity with regard to the ‘rules of the game’. In addition to these overall goals, core principles of the UNFCCC could be said to form an overarching set of rules. This includes, for instance, the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’, pointing to the need for leadership by those who are more responsible for the climate problem as well as better capable of dealing with it (in terms of e.g. financial resources) (Rajamani, 2013).

However, the extent to which these goals and principles truly guide efforts by other actors and institutions in the broader system of polycentric climate governance remains rather unclear. For instance, although the 2°C goal has been embraced by several non-state initiatives (van Asselt, Huitema and Jordan, 2018), the manner in which such initiatives have sought to differentiate between developed and developing countries has been variable (Castro, 2016).

Perhaps more importantly, it remains debatable which types of rules should be considered when exploring this proposition. This is particularly challenging to identify in case the core norms of different international institutions are in tension with each other – as in the case of the international trade and climate regime (Zelli and van Asselt, 2010). Moreover, it can be questioned whether rules that are crafted through an intergovernmental negotiation process necessarily constitute the rules for the whole polycentric governance system. Although non-governmental actors play a role in the development of rules under the UNFCCC – e.g. through lobbying or the provision of expertise – the rules discussed here are ultimately designed by and for states.

2.5 Conclusions

This chapter has shown that the domain of international climate governance displays some of the features of polycentric governance. With reference to the definition outlined in Chapter 1, we can observe multiple decision-making units (i.e. various intergovernmental regimes) that have overlapping jurisdictions and that are not in a hierarchical relationship with each other.

Focusing more specifically on some of the propositions put forward in Chapter 1, there are indications that actions at lower levels of governance are driven by the international level, but we still cannot say to what extent international institutions drive local action compared to ‘local’ drivers (but see Chapter 9), and further understanding is needed of the specific mechanisms through which international governance drives action by non-state and subnational actors. Moreover, actors involved in different international regimes seek to manage areas of overlap through activities that amount to ‘mutual adjustment’, but there is a dearth of research on why mutual adjustment occurs in some cases but not in others. The international climate regime can also be said to be the source of some international governance experiments and, more broadly, be seen as setting the stage for governance experiments at other levels (van Asselt et al., 2018). The regime may further act as a ‘trust catalyst’ by offering a venue for regular deliberation and establishing a system for reporting and review. However, its trust-building capacity is primarily limited to state-based actions, as its transparency arrangements do not extend to actions by non-state and subnational actors. Finally, while an overarching set of rules can be said to have emerged through the UNFCCC, it has been made first and foremost by states for states. The extent to which there is a set of overarching rules applying to all actors in the system of polycentric climate governance – as well as the contents of those rules – remains an open question.

In conclusion, researchers need to move well beyond the idea that there is or has ever been a single ‘monocentric’ international climate regime. International climate governance emanates from a variety of international regimes, suggesting that this domain in itself is already polycentric. Moreover, as this chapter has shown, the domain of international governance at least partly confirms some of the propositions on polycentric climate governance. What is still needed, however, is a better and more systematic understanding of how exactly international regimes – and the UNFCCC in particular – function in relation to the other domains within the broader polycentric governance system, and where the limits of the suggested positive implications are. A polycentric perspective suggests that existing work conducted by international policy researchers on the linkages within and between other domains be accelerated.

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3 National Governance The State’s Role in Steering Polycentric Action

Joana Setzer and Michal Nachmany
3.1 Introduction

The landscape of climate governance has changed considerably in the past decades. From being dominated by scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and national governments under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), climate governance is now populated by actors and institutions ranging from businesses, local governments and civil society organisations, to novel hybrid forms including offsetting standards, emissions registries, carbon-labelling schemes and collaborations between cities (Hoffmann, 2011; Bulkeley et al., 2012; Bulkeley et al., 2014; Hale, 2016).

The theory of polycentric governance attempts to explain this dynamic scene by offering a more holistic and inclusive view of climate governance. Chapter 1 identifies three defining features of polycentric governance: (1) it operates at multiple centres of decision-making authority with overlapping jurisdictions, which (2) interact through a process of mutual adjustment and with (3) their interactions generating a regularised pattern of overarching social order. However, some of this scholarship often underappreciates or even entirely neglects the role of the state in polycentric governance. For instance, emphasising the lack of hierarchy in polycentric systems, some scholars suggest that states cannot, or will not, be relied on, because a multitude of other actors will provide alternative mechanisms and solutions (Skelcher, 2005). It is also argued that engaged and autonomous non-governmental actors can enhance the state’s capacity to deliver (Hooghe and Marks, 2003; Newig and Fritsch, 2009; Bixler, 2014). The underlying argument is that states are often weak and distant from the societies they govern, and that by providing autonomy to alternative authorities, there is an increase of trust, which in turn improves accountability.

Others acknowledge the importance of the state and of actions taken at the national level. Within a polycentric approach to climate change, Elinor Ostrom asserted that ‘solutions negotiated at a global level, if not backed up by a variety of efforts at national, regional, and local levels … are not guaranteed to work well’ (Ostrom, 2009: 4). Nation states and their governments are, thus, part of an ‘increasingly diversified structure of climate governance, with its multiple actors’ (Dorsch and Flachsland, 2017: 47).

We set out to understand the role of the state in an ever-more polycentric setting. Is it simply one of many actors in a non-hierarchical structure, its functions replaceable by those of other actors? Or does it maintain a unique position? As a starting point, we unpack some of the state’s more relevant characteristics. We focus on the functions of states’ domestic governmental institutions performed by their three branches – the legislative, executive and judicial – and on their interactions with subnational governments, individuals and civil society groups at the national level. These particular features of domestic political structures make the state a polycentric actor in itself, acting within a broader, polycentric environment. In specifying the roles of the state in polycentric climate governance, we examine states as a particular polycentric domain, where state institutions and social actors interact, and we focus our attention on how climate change is – and at times is not – scaled down from national to subnational governments, and from governmental to non-governmental spheres.

In terms of their capabilities, states are both rule-makers and rule-enforcers. States with legitimate democratic mandates represent collective interests and have the power to grant and deny other actors their liberties (e.g. by imprisoning them), to collect and distribute money and to regulate financial flows. States are also significant economic actors, with global public expenditure amounting to an average of 17 per cent of gross domestic product (World Bank, 2017). While no other actor in society can challenge the formal political mandate of the state (Peters and Pierre, 2016), in societies governed by the rule of law, with an independent and impartial judiciary, states can be held accountable for their actions and lack of actions. Moreover, states’ legal frameworks, which are rooted in actions taken in administrative, legislative and judicial settings, are then augmented by rule-making decisions taken by individuals in particular settings (Ostrom, 2005: 20).

With respect to climate change, states are a central focal point for the implementation of mitigation and adaptation efforts. This role was further acknowledged by the Paris Agreement (2015) when it made states responsible for formulating, reporting and updating their nationally determined contributions (NDCs). States are also the organisations that are expected to implement the policies to give effect to NDCs (Purdon, 2015), and thus promote the changes in societal processes that will allow climate action and sustainable development to move forward. In turn, these actions will influence patterns of consumption and production, encouraging investments in low-carbon technologies, etc. (Boasson, 2015). In a nutshell, states stand out distinctly among the vast number and types of actors in the world of polycentric climate governance.

We approach the participation of the state in polycentric climate governance by focusing on two roles. The first is regulating, defined as ‘the intentional activity of attempting to control, order or influence the behaviour of others’ (Black, 2002: 19);1 this role is carried out by the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government. The second is mobilising others (such as subnational units of the state and non-state actors) to act. Courts carry out both these roles by holding the state and other actors accountable to regulatory frameworks, and by ruling on cases which set norms and directions for all actors to follow.

In highlighting these two roles, we take the position that governing (by national governments) is not opposed to governance (by non-state actors), but rather a fundamental building block that establishes structures and frameworks that interact extensively with other actors in the wider, polycentric climate governance landscape. Overall, we assert that, by providing increased regulation and mobilisation, domestic governmental institutions contribute to – and enhance – polycentric climate governance.

3.2 Regulation: Rule-Making by the Legislative and Executive Branches

Using their capacity to set and enforce rules, in the past two decades, legislatures and administrations have been developing, passing and implementing climate legislation and policies (Lachapelle and Paterson, 2013). Since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, climate legislation and policymaking has been on a steady rise, and the number of climate laws and policies has increased twentyfold, nearly doubling every five years (Nachmany et al., 2017b). According to the ‘Climate Change Laws of the World’ database,2 by mid-2017 there were approximately 1,300 laws and policies in the 175 countries covered in the database. On average, states have almost eight relevant laws or policies; among the least developed countries the average is fewer than six per country, although they are catching up with the rest post-Paris (Nachmany et al., 2017a).3 The rate of adoption of new laws and policies peaked during the period between 2009 and 2013 at approximately 100 per year. The rate dropped to around 40 new laws in 2016, as the existing body of laws already covers substantive ground.

Since the quantity of laws and policies does not necessarily reflect the quality, depth or even the breadth of the climate actions they govern, it is worth noting some of their characteristics.

3.2.1 Characterising National Climate Laws and Policies

Some rules are set by laws, passed by parliaments, and others are set by policies, decrees or strategies of similar nature, passed by the executive branch (these not merely implement rules set previously by laws but rather set rules in their own right). More than half of the rule-setting interventions recorded in the ‘Climate Change Laws of the World’ database are executive, not legislative.

Differences between the types of act can be traced to different phases of the policy cycle, as well as to different regulatory traditions. Legislative action requires high capacities and political will, and hence often occurs at an advanced stage in the policy cycle.4 Executive action, on the other hand, could be favoured due to centralised political and decision-making authority structures. Alternatively, it may indicate that the country is in an earlier phase of policy development, as many executive policies include the intention to be written into law if and when political conditions permit. An example is Kenya’s Climate Change Act of 2016, which developed from the National Climate Change Response Strategy of 2010. Different regulatory cultures may also be accountable for the choice of executive over legislative interventions. In China, for instance, the National Commission for Reform and Development (the government) leads on policymaking (Averchenkova et al., 2016). In many other developing countries, climate policy is often embedded in comprehensive national development plans that rank highly in terms of their political importance.

The scope of climate laws and policies is also quite wide. Some explicitly address climate change mitigation and adaptation, while others facilitate transitions to low-carbon economies, for example by supporting renewable energy or reducing deforestation. Recent laws and policies that have been introduced are generally broad in scope – either creating overarching regulatory frameworks for climate change or incorporating climate change into broader development plans. More than three-quarters of countries have an overarching legislative framework or strategy that addresses climate change. Clare, Fankhauser and Genaioli (2017) find that the passage of a framework law facilitates further regulation. Indeed, in addition to climate frameworks, almost all countries have adopted more specific, topical regulation governing areas such as energy, agriculture, deforestation and transportation. In addition, climate change clauses and considerations are also incorporated into broader thematic regulation, such as green growth plans or development policies. These are particularly important for overcoming the institutional silos which inhibit collaboration between actors in different sectors (e.g. Burch, 2010; Pasquini, Cowling and Ziervogel, 2013).

In the coming years, filling gaps within the body of existing laws and policies, as well as ratcheting up efforts over time as prescribed by the Paris Agreement, is likely to result in a small increase in the overall number of laws and policies being adopted. The challenge will lie in ensuring that they strengthen the existing frameworks, pursuant to the long-term aims of the Paris Agreement. Although many national governments started formulating climate policies later, low-income countries are progressively active on climate change legislation.

3.2.2 National Laws and Policies in a Polycentric Governance Context

National laws and policies – even with such variation in the instruments adopted and in their content – are important features of a polycentric governance system. Not only do they enhance incentives for climate mitigation, provide mechanisms for mainstreaming and serve as a focal point for actors (Dubash et al., 2013; Michaelowa and Michaelowa, 2017) but, more generally, national laws and policies constitute ‘overarching rules’ (see Chapter 1). Here we consider the aspects of laws and policies that make them especially key features of polycentric governance systems.

First, laws and policies create specific policy instruments, which can be used in a variety of ways. Such policy instruments can restrict activities (e.g. emission caps or restrictions on deforestation), mandate activities (e.g. green procurement requirements or a requirement to formulate local adaptation plans) or provide economic incentives for carbon reduction (e.g. emissions trading systems; see Chapter 13). The state also governs the mandatory collection and distribution of funds through its tax and budgetary regimes – a significant power that no other actor possesses.

Second, laws create institutional arrangements that define responsibilities for actors at various stages of the policy cycle. These could include informational responsibilities such as greenhouse gas accounting or risk assessments; policy formulation and reformulation; policy implementation through coordination; monitoring, evaluation and reporting of performance; and finally, reformulation of policies in accordance with the need to strengthen national commitments over time. Creating stable institutions and improving transparency and financial stability not only sets rules of operation but also contributes to developing countries’ access to international climate finance. Absent or weak regulatory frameworks and institutions constitute a major risk to flows of climate finance, deepening poor countries’ vulnerability to climate change even further. States that are party to the Paris Agreement should specifically mobilise climate finance using ‘a wide variety of sources, instruments and channels’ (Article 9). In a broader context, regulatory instability weakens the credibility of the commitments taken by states, which may hamper the willingness of other states to take climate action (Averchenkova and Bassi, 2016).

Third, climate change laws can also facilitate the integration of climate change into different aspects of regulation and mainstream climate considerations into multiple institutions and policies, inside and outside government. As such, states use climate law to orchestrate other actors (see Chapter 11). For example, the Micronesian Climate Change Act makes it compulsory for government offices and departments to mainstream climate considerations into their plans and policies. This model, which creates shared responsibilities amongst specialising actors, can be perceived as a miniature version of polycentric governance – whereby different ministries and agencies are obligated or encouraged to partake in climate action.

Finally, national legislation lends credibility to governments’ commitments, making the implementation of international agreements both more likely and more meaningful (Averchenkova and Bassi, 2016). This is particularly clear in the regime established by the Paris Agreement, which relies heavily on national governments to implement mitigation policies voluntarily in line with their NDCs.

These characteristics of national laws and policies suggest that ‘overarching rules’, both within states and also at the international level, constitute another key feature of polycentric climate governance (see Chapter 1). Although a need for overarching rules may seem at first counterintuitive in relation to other features of polycentric governance (e.g. localism and self-organisation), aspects of monocentricity can and do coexist with polycentricity. In this regard, Aligica and Tarko (2012: 237) even define polycentrism ‘as a structural feature of social systems of many decision centers having limited and autonomous prerogatives and operating under an overarching set of rules’ (our emphasis).

3.3 Mobilisation: Supporting Action by Non-state Actors

In addition to the formal rule-setting capabilities discussed earlier, states are also suited to create and facilitate non-state action. As Kahler (2017) argues, states ‘remain prominent governors, setting boundaries and benchmarks as well as engaging as partners with an enlarged and diverse universe of actors’. Similarly, Peter and Pierre’s (2016: 5) definition of ‘government’ takes into consideration both the formal structures of the public sector and the set of actors exercising state power (a state-centric conception of governance), as well as the interaction with – and mobilisation of – other actors in society to perform key governance tasks. States, thus, can mobilise or ‘orchestrate’ actions across levels of government as well as across types of actors (Hale, 2016; see also Chapters 4 and 11).

The idea of states mobilising non-state action is clearly spelt out in the Paris Agreement (2015). Recognising the polycentric nature of the system, the Paris Agreement acknowledges that climate action cannot and should not be taken by states alone. The Agreement specifies that states will operate in a coordinated manner to enhance public- and private-sector participation in the implementation of the NDCs (Article 6). It also recognises that climate adaptation is a challenge with local, subnational, national, regional and international dimensions, and requires the state to take those into account when formulating adaptation strategies (Article 7).

But mobilisation of non-state actors by the state is a hugely difficult task to perform, not least because of the ‘increasing complexity of society, and the limited effectiveness of traditional policy instruments to shape social behaviour and markets in the desired directions’ (Peters and Pierre, 2016: 11). As a result, the interaction between state and non-state actors may be complementary (Andonova et al., 2017) and reinforcing (Roger, Hale and Andonova, 2017), with states addressing weak capacities and low accountability of non-state action (Widerberg and Pattberg, 2015; see also Chapter 10), yet it can also be contradictory (Cao and Ward, 2017). Acknowledging these difficulties, we now turn to examine how, in a polycentric setting and from a domestic perspective, national governments may mobilise subnational and non-governmental climate action.

3.3.1 Mobilising Subnational Governments

Where vertical types of coordination are observed between different levels of government, national governments often establish national targets and represent the countries’ interests in supranational or global forums, while subnational governments implement regulations so that the targets are reached. This is the case in federal structures, where central governments set standards that should be met in each of the jurisdictions, and lower levels of governments make local policies for their own constituencies (Engel, 2005).

In many governance structures, there has been a shift from the national to local levels, with more functions of the (national) state performed by subnational and local governments (see Chapter 1). In the environmental and climate contexts, this shift has been understood in terms of a rescaling process, which also recognises that subnational entities are actors in global governance in their own right (Andonova and Mitchell, 2010; Schroeder and Lovell, 2012). Especially in the area of climate governance, subnational governments often compensate for insufficient regulation at the national and international levels (Michaelowa and Michaelowa, 2017). Hundreds of cities, states and provinces in Brazil, Canada and the United States, to name just a few examples, engage in transnational climate governance and legislate more ambitiously than their national governments (Setzer, 2017). As part of the Paris process and accompanying initiatives, subnational governments have several different options to continue establishing climate-related commitments and engaging internationally (see Biniaz, 2017). Such localisation of climate governance is cited as a positive feature of a polycentric governance approach (McGinnis, 2016: 25; see also Chapter 1). National governments should, therefore, mobilise and support subnational climate action.

However, some climate laws and policies might not be feasible at a subnational level. While climate policies should preferably be site-specific (Dorsch and Flachsland, 2017), it is not always possible for subnational governments to regulate certain emission sources (Setzer, 2015). Furthermore, national governments may view such attempts as undesired interventions. For example, in the United States, the Supreme Court has already invalidated climate state laws that it considered a risk to foreign affairs (LaMotte, Williamson and Hopkins, 2009: 409). The same can occur in relation to subnational attempts to forge interstate and international cooperation (Kysar and Meyler, 2008). In some cases, it has been possible to recast climate change as a domestic problem, allowing subnational governments to enact climate laws and establish carbon markets with other actors across borders (Peel, Godden and Keenan, 2012). In other cases, subnational governments are prevented from legislating, even if the national government has not articulated any policies (Rose, 2008: 673). As climate change is a global problem, certain jurisdictions consider it part of the realm of foreign affairs, which is the prerogative of the national government (Farber, 2008). When mutual adjustment between governing units cannot be achieved,5 subnational governments may have limited competence or capacity to legislate or enact climate policies.

Despite these legal limitations on subnational action, national governments have a direct interest in what their subunits are doing with respect to climate change. At the same time, national governments have the challenge of grasping the impacts of such subnational action; simply evaluating the extent to which their actions contribute towards achieving national climate targets can be very difficult. This indicates once again how national governments are part of a wider polycentric system, as well as a polycentric domain in themselves, and they are imbricated in such a way that one cannot be understood without the other.

3.3.2 Mobilising Non-governmental Actors

In addition to mobilising subnational governments, national governments also mobilise non-governmental actors, most prominently businesses and civil society. In many countries, non-governmental actors engage in policymaking by providing ideas about policies and programmes, and contributing means to the achievement of policy ends (Peters and Pierre, 2016: 34). In advancing climate action, non-governmental actors often play a critical role, as they compensate for failing policies and institutions at the national or international levels (Hoffmann, 2011). Nevertheless, non-governmental actors also depend upon and benefit from frameworks and incentives provided by national governments.

First, national governments drive forward private initiatives. Businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) often rely on governments to initiate actions, formulate priorities, coordinate efforts or legitimate their decisions (Van den Brande, Bruyninckx and Happaerts, 2012: 5). Even in a polycentric system, national governments set a trajectory for non-governmental actors, defining goals towards which actions should be oriented, either in terms of emission reductions or in terms of increased resilience to the impacts of climate change. For example, the United Kingdom (UK) Climate Change Act specifies long-term emission reduction targets, supported by short- and medium-term targets called ‘carbon budgets’ that are reviewed periodically. Norway’s main climate policy, the Climate Settlement, specifies that the country will become carbon neutral by 2050.

Thus, national governments have an important role in signalling to the private sector that it can support innovation, providing incentives to various actors to invest in research and development and overcoming barriers such as facing high costs of transformation. Backing the targets with laws and incentive structures and setting an example (e.g. by regulations for the public sector) provides much-needed certainty for investors. Laws like South Korea’s Framework Act on Low Carbon Green Growth, which encourages the development of green industries and the transformation of traditional industries to low-carbon ones, reduce uncertainty and provide a space for businesses to develop and transform. On the other hand, regulatory instability and policy reversals may disrupt businesses and investors, potentially leading to devastating implications for green industries, as illustrated by the renewable energy feed-in tariff cuts in Spain following the 2008 financial crisis.

Second, national governments create accountability mechanisms by mandating consultation, reporting and oversight arrangements. For example, the UK government is legally obliged to consult the Climate Change Committee on setting and meeting carbon budgets, as well as adapting to climate change. In addition, the institutions created by the state serve as vessels to facilitate policy continuity, legitimacy and effective enforcement (Willems and Baumert, 2003; Nachmany, Abeysinghe and Barakat, 2017a).

Lastly, a government’s ability to act is relative to that of non-governmental actors. Governments have the capacity to upscale non-governmental action, thus contributing to reducing costs and improving technologies such as renewable energy or energy-saving solutions, where vertical policy interventions by higher levels induce horizontal dynamics (Jänicke, Schreurs and Töpfer, 2015). Having governmental power and capacities as a backbone to the weaker and/or diffused capacities gives leeway to those with weaker ones to make mistakes, or to not deliver on their agendas – trusting that there will be coordinated action to compensate for their shortcomings.

3.4 Regulation and Mobilisation: Judicial Law Enforcement and Challenging the State

The three branches of the state – legislative, executive and judicial – interact amongst themselves in multiple ways. A functioning judicial system dedicated to the rule of law contributes to ensuring that the state guarantees civil and political rights (Slaughter, 1995: 511). In the context of climate change, the courts play a double role, both enforcing existing climate laws and policies and directing action by state and non-state actors. As Peel and Osofsky (2015) argue, litigation is a forum for enforcement and interpretation of the law, as well as a site of potential regulatory development. Used strategically, litigation offers another possible response to inadequate lawmaking activity by governments and also prompts wider policy change. This dual role of the courts in climate litigation – enforcing the law and challenging the state and large emitters – illustrates polycentricity in action within the state.6

Climate litigation is a growing phenomenon. In the past years, in many countries, local and regional authorities, businesses, NGOs and individuals have been involved in climate litigation. There have been nearly 700 cases of climate litigation in the United States, and more than 250 court cases across 25 other jurisdictions.7 Governments have been the defendants in most of these cases. For instance, in the 25 jurisdictions for which data are available, excluding the United States, 79 per cent of the cases are against governments. Corporations are the second most common defendants (13 per cent of cases). Previous research similarly suggests that in the United States, the government has also been the defendant in the majority of cases relating to climate change (Markell and Ruhl, 2012). Out of the 201 cases filed prior to 2010, governments (federal, state and/or municipal) were named as defendants or co-defendants 204 times.8 Corporations were defendants in 45 cases.

In some cases, climate litigation aims to drive climate action in countries that lack comprehensive policies or legislation to address climate change. Plaintiffs hope that their claims will fill a governance gap in the short term and spur legislation and regulation in the longer term (Setzer and Bangalore, 2017). A favourable court decision could allow national or subnational governments to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and implement climate policies, even when there is no specific legislation. In the United States, litigation has been driven by the absence of a comprehensive federal legislation that addresses climate change. In this context, court decisions might even replace the need for legislation. For example, the ruling in Massachusetts v. United States (US) Environmental Protection Agency by the Supreme Court in 2007 not only created a legal basis for regulating carbon dioxide emissions but also formed the basis for a bilateral deal with China, and the Obama government’s participation in the Paris Agreement (Carnwath, 2016).

In other cases, lawsuits are brought to enhance climate action in countries that already have climate regulation in place, and is geared to interpret or enforce existing legislation. An example is the case of Ashgar Leghari v. Federation of Pakistan in 2015, in which the national government was found to have failed to implement its climate policy. Another example is Urgenda Foundation v. Kingdom of the Netherlands; in a 2015 decision, the District Court of The Hague ruled that the Dutch government is required to reduce its emissions by at least 25 per cent by the end of 2020 compared to 1990 levels.

However, the capacity of courts to contribute to effective climate governance should not be overstated. In addition to these cases where climate litigation is brought as a means to strengthen climate action, litigation can equally be used to oppose climate laws and policies, most commonly because such instruments affect private commercial interests (Hilson, 2010). For example, coal companies opposing regulatory emissions reductions have used the courts to challenge clean energy measures. Even if an examination of the outcomes of climate litigation suggests that so far courts are mostly strengthening, rather than hindering, climate regulation (Setzer and Bangalore, 2017), in the lawsuits so far identified in jurisdictions outside of the United States, 40 per cent of the cases were brought by corporations against governments and government agencies, but also against NGOs and individuals.

Viewing litigation as an appropriate site for regulatory development to address climate change is also controversial. Sine argue that strategic climate litigation has been largely political, having no plausible legal basis or chance of success (Zahar, 2015: 24). Courts and tribunals still have to consider whether the law can and should recognise climate change as a problem and respond to it (Fisher, Scotford and Barritt, 2017: 184). Procedural questions over separation of powers, legal standing, jurisdiction or the scope of permissible review also constitute significant obstacles to cases in many jurisdictions.

Another concern is that the majority of cases taken thus far to courts have not addressed climate policies and legislation or wider emission reductions. Instead, lawsuits have aimed at specific projects (e.g. coal-fired power plants, wind farms or coastal homes), commonly brought under land use and planning laws, or at details regarding the implementation of existing climate policies. As with other climate governance initiatives in polycentric systems, lawsuits dealing with specific projects at the local level have seen more success, while ambitious attempts to promote significant mitigation still constitute the minority of cases. The few examples of successful strategic climate litigation cases are Massachusetts v. US Environmental Protection Agency and the Urgenda case, which push for more aggressive national climate change mitigation policies, and Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. US Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia v. US Environmental Protection Agency, which challenge the legal bases for US mitigation policy.

But while climate change litigation may not provide the whole answer to the problem of climate change, it is increasingly clear that it will be an important part of the answer (Peel and Osofsky, 2015). Despite some limitations, rather than simply a forum for enforcement, courts are a site of potential regulatory development of the law (Peel, Godden and Keenan, 2012). New strategic cases brought by NGOs, local authorities and public prosecutors involve a great deal of experimentation. Although so far there are few cases in which the judiciary has improved existing regulatory outcomes, in a polycentric climate governance scenario, courts are likely to continue being used to pressure for future regulatory decision-making to be more responsive to climate change (Peel and Osofsky, 2015: 308). As Ostrom (2005) acknowledged, the rule of law depends on actions taken by the state, as well as by individuals, and all of these actors are potentially involved in lawsuits dealing with climate change. Climate litigation is a potentially powerful mechanism offered by the state, which allows non-state actors to hold governments to account for insufficient lawmaking, and corporations for current and historical emissions. In addition, instances of strategic litigation that seek to push for more aggressive mitigation policy have been initiated particularly since 2015; this is likely to be a growing trend.9

3.5 Conclusions

Through legislative, executive and judiciary branches, national governments remain key actors in the changing climate governance landscape, particularly in the post-Paris period, in which there is an increased reliance on states’ ambitions and on their capacity to establish and implement ambitious policies, mobilising subnational and non-governmental actors.

This chapter has explored the roles of the state in the context of polycentric climate governance, asking if functions performed by the state (a polycentric actor in itself) can coexist with the logic of polycentric governance. At first, it is difficult to envision how the built-in hierarchy fits in the deeply complex and dynamic polycentric setting. Yet, the unique role of states requires some theoretical reconciliation with the logic of non-hierarchical polycentric governance. Without challenging the concept of polycentric approach to climate governance, we claim that states and their governments play a central role, which cannot be filled by any combination of non-state climate activities. National regulation is unique in that it sets rules and a trajectory for other actors. Also, overarching rules can potentially promote effective coordination at the societal level. But this does not imply a hierarchy of importance, as the concerted action of other actors is required more than ever. This is why, in practice, the extent and quality of coordination should remain an empirical question (McGinnis, 2016), and not part of the basic definition of polycentric governance.

In this context, a polycentric approach to climate governance should be able to accommodate governmental action intertwined with non-governmental, as well as governmental units at different levels, competing and cooperating, interacting and learning from one another (Cole, 2015). Nevertheless, effectively implementing rules and mobilising others to action are difficult tasks to perform, and even harder to measure. The challenges to shape social behaviour and markets towards a low-carbon economy are many and varied. With that, state regulation and the mobilisation of subnational and non-governmental actors in future years is likely to encounter only varying degrees of success.


1. Black (2002) notes that the element of intentionality excludes market forces, social forces and technologies, although these may control the actions of others.

2. The ‘Climate Change Laws of the World’ database covers climate change laws, policies, executive orders and key executive strategies of comparable nature in 175 countries, together accounting for more than 95 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It is accessible at

3. Out of 48 least developed countries, only 3 do not have any recorded climate laws or executive policies.

4. For example, in the group of least developed countries, under a quarter of policy interventions are set by legislation, compared with 60 per cent in G20 countries (Nachmany et al., 2017a).

5. Vincent Ostrom (1999: 57) defined a polycentric system as ‘one where many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments for ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with independence of other elements’.

6. The role of the judiciary is seldom fully acknowledged by scholars investigating climate governance. However, Osofsky (2011) argues that climate litigation has an important ‘diagonal quality’ that can create new intersections between different levels of government and different actors – public and private – concerned with climate change.

7. Data for all countries save the United States are found in the ‘Climate Change Laws of the World’ database. The database for climate litigation in the United States is maintained by the Sabin Center and by Arnold and Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.

8. In some cases, more than one level of government is named as a co-defendant.

9. The most recent cases are already dealing with NDCs. For example, in Thomson v. Minister for Climate Change Issues, the adequacy of New Zealand’s intended NDC was challenged for allegedly falling short of the emissions reductions required by the country’s Climate Change Response Act of 2002.

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4 Transnational Governance Charting New Directions Post-Paris

Harriet Bulkeley , Michele Betsill , Daniel Compagnon , Thomas Hale , Matthew Hoffmann , Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson
4.1 Introduction

Over the past decade, a key dynamic in climate politics has been the emergence and growth of transnational climate change governance (TCCG) (Abbott, 2012; Bulkeley et al., 2014), which has played an important part in the shift from the monocentric regime established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to an increasingly polycentric system of climate change governance (Ostrom, 2010; see also Chapter 2). Transnational governance is typically understood as efforts to authoritatively steer society by a range of actors – including civil society organisations, subnational governments and companies – operating across international borders (Rosenau and Czempiel, 1992). TCCG takes on many different forms, including carbon-trading mechanisms, labelling and certification schemes, emissions registries, voluntary corporate reporting and urban planning (Andonova, Betsill and Bulkeley, 2009; Hoffmann, 2011; Bulkeley et al., 2014; Hale and Roger, 2014). TCCG often includes novel arrangements, techniques, measures and interventions designed to respond to climate change. TCCG initiatives are by definition the product of ‘local’ self-organisation (where ‘local’ is understood to mean action within the context of a particular setting), and they tend to interact both with each other and with other forms of governance such as the UNFCCC and national-level arrangements (Roger, Hale and Andonova, 2017) in a process akin to mutual adjustment in polycentricity theory. TCCG has been described as a form of experimental governance (Hoffmann, 2011; see also Chapter 6), though the extent to which this is producing learning across the diverse universe of TCCG remains moot.

The emergence of TCCG and its gathering momentum through the 2000s reflected the growing engagement of a diverse array of actors with climate change, the ease of establishing transnational connections and the stalemate within the multilateral climate change regime. In some accounts, its emergence is firmly linked to the deficit of climate governance and leadership at the level of the international regime and the nation state (Roger et al., 2017). For others, TCCG as a form of governance innovation has more diffuse causes. These include: broader trends in the fragmentation of authority; diverse motivations amongst those actors who initiated climate governance, including cities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and corporate actors; as well as the evolution of the climate issue itself from a singular environmental issue into many diverse realms, including carbon trading, the development of new forms of energy supply, forestry and so forth (Bulkeley et al., 2014). As TCCG has grown, our aggregate knowledge of the scale and scope of TCCG has increased. Significantly, several interrelated databases have been developed to map TCCG initiatives and the subnational and non-state actors that engage in them (Hoffmann, 2011; Bulkeley et al., 2014; Widerberg and Pattberg, 2015; Hsu et al., 2016; Roger et al., 2017). Drawing on this evidence base, in this chapter we review TCCG and identify its most salient features. With the development of the 2015 Paris Agreement, we see a significant shift in the extent and positioning of TCCG. Rather than remaining a relatively marginal form of climate governance, TCCG has come to be recognised and integrated within the multilateral climate change regime complex (Hale, 2016). At the same time, TCCG provides new arenas for contesting what climate governance entails. We detail how TCCG and UNFCCC politics have become increasingly intertwined through the Paris Agreement and suggest that this evolution can be captured through an appreciation of the development of polycentric climate governance as a whole.

Regarding TCCG as part of polycentric climate governance has significant consequences for how we explore the phenomenon and evaluate its impacts and implications. Rather than analysing singular initiatives, it suggests the onus is on understanding the interactions between individual initiatives and the wider governance complex of which they are a part. In the final part of this chapter, we consider three such arenas – clean energy, carbon markets and fossil fuel divestment – and examine the forms of governance innovation that are emerging in the transnational domain. While early forms of TCCG tended to share the same ideological positioning (thus enabling the building of trust across initiatives, a key dynamic in polycentric governance), we find that the transnational arena today is characterised by both centripetal and centrifugal forces. Many TCCG initiatives now explicitly align themselves with goals and frameworks embedded in the UNFCCC regime. At the same time, TCCG is becoming a more contested political domain in which actors challenge those goals and frameworks in search of alternative forms of climate action. In conclusion, we reflect on the implications of our discussion for the development of this area of research and our understanding of polycentric climate governance.

4.2 Constructing TCCG: Experimenting with an Alternative Approach to Governing?

Transnational efforts around climate change in the 1990s predominantly began not as governance efforts but as attempts to influence the state-centric global response to climate change (Newell, 2000; Betsill and Corell, 2008). These actors (NGOs, corporations, regions, provinces, etc.) were actively engaged in the multilateral negotiations and considered themselves either governance takers (having to implement the directives that came from the multilateral process) or governance influencers (seeking to shift the trajectory and substance of multilateral treaty-making). One exception to this picture was found in the work of cities (see Chapter 5), which actively formed networks intended to directly govern climate change.

After the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, many of these actors shifted towards attempts to engage in transnational climate change governance. In part this was because of what they saw as inadequate progress within the Kyoto Protocol itself (Depledge, 2006), but in part it was because the overarching rules created by the Kyoto Protocol (e.g. emissions trading to support the Kyoto targets) offered an enabling environment for their growth. This was noted first by those examining municipal climate governance efforts through transnational networks (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2003), but came to be seen as much more widespread (Andonova et al., 2009; Hoffmann, 2011). During this period, actors began to experiment with alternative responses to the issue of climate change in ways that cut across traditional divides between actors and scales. Through these efforts, TCCG was becoming an alternative form of global climate governance, independent in many crucial ways from state and multilateral climate governance. By the mid-2000s, there were two coexisting and interrelated realms of the global response to climate change – the multilateral arena and an emergent TCCG arena. Initial efforts at understanding TCCG revealed that it is widespread, but also patterned in particular ways. Indeed, rather than consisting of a random assortment of initiatives only tied together by an externally imposed analytic definition, TCCG – like the broader polycentric climate governance system of which it is a part – displays self-organisation and significant order even though it is not centrally organised.

Three elements of this ordering are particularly prominent – functional, geographical and ideological. Functionally, early studies revealed that TCCG initiatives produced innovative governance arrangements, but the novelty had limits. Hoffmann (2011) uncovered four types of governance prominent in the TCCG world – networking, capacity building, voluntary action and accountable action. Bulkeley et al. (2014) explored these varied functions in terms of the patterns through which diverse public and private actors institutionalise TCCG initiatives and create authoritative governance arrangements. Furthermore, while TCCG initiatives take on a wide range of climate-related issues, there is clustering around four topics: energy, carbon markets/finance, biodiversity and sequestration and infrastructure (Bulkeley et al., 2014).

The geographical dispersion of TCCG initiatives is also uneven. While actors in the global North have been the dominant initiators of TCCG, this broad generalisation obscures significant regional variation in TCCG activity (Bulkeley et al., 2014). Despite a large proportion (75–90 per cent) of TCCG initiatives aiming to operate in developing countries (UNFCCC, 2016; Chan et al., 2018), developing country–based actors lead only a tiny fraction of these initiatives. Northern-based actors lead 70–90 per cent of initiatives (Widerberg and Pattberg, 2015; Hsu et al., 2016) and 64–84 per cent of participating actors come from developed countries (Galvanizing the Groundswell of Climate Actions, 2015). Actors from Africa and Asia are particularly underrepresented (Bulkeley et al., 2014; Hsu et al., 2016). The role of the global South in TCCG remains a key area of ongoing research (Newell and Bulkeley, 2017; Chan et al., 2018). So far it is unclear whether, as a component of the wider system of polycentric governance, TCCG delivers ‘the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes’ (Ostrom, 2010: 552).

Finally, ideological patterns are prominent in terms of the underlying worldview across TCCG initiatives and legitimating discourses. What Bernstein (2002) dubs ‘liberal environmentalism’, a notion that sustainability efforts are dependent on or have to be compatible with economic growth, permeates the TCCG world (Bernstein et al., 2010). In addition, TCCG initiatives follow relatively similar strategies of formal or informal institutionalisation to generate the authority to govern in the absence of the more traditional legal authority that state-based governance efforts possess.

As TCCG activities have expanded and academic interest in them has grown, analysis has shifted from examining their emergence, substance and functioning to considering the extent and kinds of impacts that TCCG initiatives have individually and collectively generated. Put simply, do they achieve their objectives? Do they have second-order effects on other actors or on national policies? A number of approaches to assessing the impact of TCCG are now available. Some focus on direct impacts (what individual initiatives accomplish themselves) measured in terms of quantitative emissions reductions goals (Widerberg and Pattberg, 2015). Others argue for a process-based evaluation (Chan and Pauw, 2014: 33) like a ‘function-output fit’ approach to assess outputs against stated goals of TCCG initiatives (Chan et al., 2015: 45; see also Chan et al., 2018). Much of this existing literature, however, focuses on its potential contributions rather than its actual performance and effects. For example, Michaelowa and Michaelowa (2017) analyse climate partnerships to understand whether they have design features that would allow them to effectively mitigate emissions independently of national policies. One step closer to impact, Chan et al. (2018) look at what activities climate partnerships undertake to see if they are producing the kinds of outputs that are likely to lead to impact. Literature on the related area of partnerships for sustainable development suggests that effectiveness may vary considerably across TCCG initiatives (Szulecki, Pattberg and Biermann, 2011; Pattberg et al., 2012).

Complementing these attempts to directly measure impacts are proposals to evaluate TCCG initiatives on the basis of indirect impacts – how much they contribute to broader transformations (van der Ven, Bernstein and Hoffmann, 2017). This approach considers that the key effects of TCCG initiatives are likely to be catalytic and political – contributing to normative change, building the capacities of political actors and altering coalition-building and conflict dynamics (see Chapter 14) – in addition to, or even instead of, quantifiable emissions reductions. Measuring indirect effects is thus a matter of monitoring the political dynamics that initiatives entail over time (Chan et al., 2015). Evidence suggests that TCCG initiatives are now woven into the fabric of global climate change governance, and interact with United Nations–based multilateral treaties and national government policy systems in important ways (Betsill et al., 2015) such that they provided an important foundation for the Paris Agreement (Hale, 2016). Cao and Ward (2017) even speculate that growing transnational networks created by TCCG will fundamentally alter the policy preferences of the nation states enmeshed in them. TCCG then – through experimentation, network-building and establishing trust between actors across the climate governance complex – can prepare the ground for the formal recognition and incorporation of the efforts of non-state actors under the umbrella of the multilateral regime. Rather than operating in isolation or in parallel, therefore, we suggest that we should consider the multilateral process and TCCG as part of an evolving polycentric climate governance system. We turn now to considering how this phenomenon has evolved in relation to the shifting multilateral regime and the 2015 Paris Agreement through the formation of a global climate governance complex, before examining specific developments within TCCG since Paris.

4.3 Reforming the Global Climate Governance Complex: Before and after the Paris Agreement

There was a sharp expansion of attention to the role of TCCG activity in the broader regime around the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris (Hale, 2016). This increase resulted from a variety of factors, including greater mobilisation of civil society, heavier media attention and, critically, the efforts of the United Nations and national governments to ‘orchestrate’ such actions (Hale, 2016; see also Chapter 11). This orchestration, and thus the shifting terms of engagement between the multilateral regime and the realm of TCCG, reflects an ongoing process of evolution within the multilateral regime itself. Since the 2009 Copenhagen COP, the climate regime has evolved in interesting and unexpected ways, which has been characterised as a shift from a gridlocked ‘regulatory’ regime to a ‘catalytic’ regime (Falkner, 2016; Hale, 2016; Keohane and Oppenheimer, 2016). The UNFCCC process has brought climate action from cities, companies, civil society groups and other subnational/non-state actors into its understanding of the ways in which climate change can and should be governed (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1 The growing role of sub/non-state climate action in the climate regime.

In September 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit brought heads of state together with business leaders, mayors and others to announce bold actions on climate. The Secretary-General’s office had spent months in advance of the summit working to orchestrate multi-stakeholder initiatives on climate change as a way to motivate countries to increase their own ambition (Hale and Roger, 2014). This dynamic was repeated two months later at the High-level Action Day at COP20, held in Lima, Peru, which provided significant impetus to existing TCCG initiatives. It was at this time that the UNFCCC, under the auspices of the Peruvian hosts, created its online Non-state Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) portal to track climate action by cities, businesses and other subnational/non-state actors. While this portal identifies the action being taken by individual actors, much of what is reported actually takes place in forms of TCCG. In parallel, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Climate Initiatives Platform specifically monitors transnational initiatives. This effort to track and profile subnational/non-state climate activities and TCCG initiatives on an ongoing basis has therefore been central to the attempt to organise and coordinate TCCG in relation to the multilateral regime.

Throughout 2015, the governments of Peru and France, in partnership with the UNFCCC secretariat and the UN Secretary-General, worked to mobilise additional action and initiatives from all sectors of society. This ‘Lima-Paris Action Agenda’, as the programme was called, eventually came to include more than 10,000 individual commitments, many of which were aligned to TCCG initiatives. It was declared a ‘fourth pillar’ of the Paris climate conference (alongside the national pledges, the climate finance package and the negotiated agreement itself), and cited as a critical driver of the successful outcome. Instead of being relegated to the sidelines, local and regional governments, the private sector and other actors were showcased at a series of thematic days throughout the COP, and celebrated in a star-studded Action Day. This conscious effort by international organisations and governments to bring subnational and non-state actors more closely into the process was reflected and augmented by the countries meeting in Paris. In a major departure, governments in Paris instituted the NAZCA portal as an ongoing system to track, support and accelerate subnational/non-state climate action going forward. They appointed two ‘high-level champions’ to catalyse bottom-up climate action. They mandated that a high-level event be held at every future COP for subnational/non-state actors to announce new commitments and report on progress. And they decided to link the ‘Action Agenda’ to the technical process in the negotiations through which countries consider new policy options they might adopt, so that subnational/non-state action can inform national policy and vice versa. These initiatives were further institutionalised at COP22 in Marrakech, through the Marrakech Partnership (UNFCCC, 2016), especially via the formation of a support unit in the UNFCCC secretariat to coordinate the process, bolstered by a hybrid support network envisioned to include a mix of governments, representatives of city and business networks, international organisations and other actors. This new link between the intergovernmental sphere and the subnational and transnational spheres sets, in many ways, a unique precedent in global governance.

4.4 The Dynamics of TCCG Post-Paris

There is, then, an impressive level of activity within the transnational realm now being recorded that could have very significant impacts. Yet the place of TCCG within a broader polycentric climate governance system means that understanding this phenomenon requires moving beyond the analysis of individual initiatives towards an analysis of the ways in which initiatives are interacting both with one another and with other aspects of the climate regime. In short, innovation within the transnational realm can only be evaluated in terms of its position and dynamic within the broader governance landscape. Betsill et al. (2015) usefully distinguish between ‘divisions of labour’ and ‘catalytic’ linkages. The former refers to types of interaction where two or more organisations might be attempting to govern a specific aspect of climate change, and the question is whether and how to coordinate their activities to remove unnecessary duplication, avoid contradictions between them, and so on. The latter refers to ways in which two or more governance initiatives may create effects that interact, for example, between the information disclosure from investor initiatives like CDP (formerly, the Carbon Disclosure Project) and carbon price initiatives by governments via carbon markets. Such interactions may then create synergies, realising improvements in climate change responses beyond which each could individually achieve, or of course conflicts, with one undermining the other, with for example some economists arguing that renewable energy targets undermine carbon-pricing initiatives.

Of course, a significant problem of studying TCCG in general, but especially these interactions, is the dynamism of transnational governance. In this section, we discuss three areas where transnational governance has been changing especially rapidly and in which divisions of labour and catalytic links are visible – clean energy, carbon markets and fossil fuel divestment. Each area demonstrates how polycentric climate governance now entails the intertwining of TCCG and the multilateral regime, but that the relationship is not singular. On the contrary, we observe both complementarities and contestation.

4.4.1 Clean Energy: Realising the TCCG Potential of the Paris Agreement?

One area in which the nature of TCCG is shaped by its position within polycentric climate governance is around the mobilisation and governance of investments in ‘clean’ (low-carbon) energy. Already existing initiatives in this regard, such as the E8, the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, the Johannesburg Renewable Energy Coalition, the Global Methane Initiative, the Green Power Market Group and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (Bulkeley et al., 2014), have recently been joined by many more, partly reflecting the heightened level of ambition contained in the Paris Agreement. This ambition is reflected in the shift to talk of a ‘clean energy revolution’ – a phrase adopted by groups as diverse as the Climate Group and Greenpeace, the World Bank and many parties to the UNFCCC.

The Paris summit witnessed numerous side events proclaiming a ‘clean energy revolution’ and announcing trillions of dollars of new investment (UNFCCC, n.d.). Africa was singled out in particular, suggesting the need to increase investments to a region deprived of finance for climate mitigation to date (Lenferna, 2016). The Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, for example, aims to build at least 100 gigawatt of new and additional renewable energy generation capacity by 2020, and 300 gigawatt by 2030. The Initiative is led by the African Union’s commission, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Agency, the African Group of Negotiators, the African Development Bank, UNEP and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Also at the Paris summit, a new ‘billion dollar clean energy access investment opportunity’ was announced through the release of the United Nations Foundation’s Energy Access Practitioner Network’s Energy Access Investment Directory, which seeks to showcase best in the off-grid clean-energy sector globally, from successful start-ups to prominent renewable energy pioneers. The directory identifies more than a billion dollars of investment and financing opportunities presented by some 200 leading companies and organisations in the sector (Energy Access Practitioner Network, n.d.). Across this realm, several focal institutions like IRENA, the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All initiative and the Clean Energy Ministerial seek to integrate TCCG initiatives with national and intergovernmental policy processes.

Reshaping patterns of energy investment in this way will be essential if the world is to achieve the ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep warming below 1.5 or 2°C. TCCG has a role to play here. Within the NAZCA portal, there are close to 5,000 companies from more than 88 countries representing more than $38 trillion in revenue, including nearly 500 investors with assets under management of more than $25 trillion, one-third of total global assets (Hsu et al., 2015). Ultimately, private and hybrid public–private flows of investment will decisively shape the prospects of low-carbon energy transitions around the world in which what emerges from UNFCCC processes is but one driver (Newell and Bulkeley, 2017), and therefore the role of TCCG in mobilising and shaping the priorities and nature of investment assumes central importance in how climate change is governed.

4.4.2 Carbon Markets: Reviving the Potential of TCCG?

Carbon markets are a major area of interaction between TCCG and the Paris Agreement (see Chapter 13). About 100 parties – accounting for 58 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – plan or consider carbon-pricing initiatives in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) submitted under the Paris Agreement. The Agreement sought to breathe new life into carbon markets, with transnational actors such as the International Emissions Trading Association and the International Carbon Reduction and Offset Alliance and the World Bank–led Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (World Bank, 2014) lobbying for the inclusion of such provisions. The ‘State and Trends of Carbon Pricing’ 2016 report (World Bank, Ecofys and Vivid Economics, 2016) highlighted the (contested) rationale for this: that cooperation through an international carbon market could reduce climate mitigation costs by one-third by 2030 and that trading carbon assets can create financial flows of 2–5 per cent of gross domestic product for low-emissions countries by 2050.

The Paris Agreement serves as an anchoring device for global carbon markets by revalidating and legitimising their role through a multilateral seal of approval, aiming to send a positive signal to investors and carbon traders about the role of carbon pricing. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement allows countries to use standardised international units to achieve their NDCs and establishes a new crediting mechanism, the Sustainable Development Mechanism, under the UNFCCC’s authority. It thus provides a means to link voluntary, state and subnational carbon markets, as well as sectoral initiatives such as that of the International Civil Aviation Organization. The latter body, for example, passed a resolution to cap emissions growth in the aviation industry starting in 2021 and to offset its emissions via a global market–based mechanism (ICAO, 2016).

Article 6 does not specify particular policies that might generate these international credits, or ‘internationally transferred mitigation outcomes’, affording flexibility to countries in their choice of policy tools. At the time of writing, these provisions are under negotiation in the UNFCCC. Significantly, in terms of ‘catalytic’ linkages, the Paris Agreement contains provisions for ‘interconnection’ (Article 6). Networks and coalitions such as the G7 Carbon Market Platform or the World Bank’s Networked Carbon Markets might be the vehicles through which this work of coordination or mutual adjustment will be performed. Likewise, how these markets evolve and are governed will be shaped by transnational climate actors critical of carbon markets such as Carbon Market Watch lobbying to ensure previous lessons about the failings of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) are taken into account as new market mechanisms proliferate and interconnect. In particular, there is a key role for transnational climate alliances in providing monitoring, oversight and grievance mechanisms, such as citizen redress when human rights violations occur and consultation does not take place – all issues raised (but not resolved) by the CDM Policy Dialogue four years ago (Newell, 2014).

4.4.3 Divestment: A Transnational Governance Innovation?

Fossil fuel divestment differs from both clean energy and carbon markets in that it is both a relatively novel part of TCCG and serves to contest rather than endorse the rationale of most forms of climate governance (on divestment generally, see Ayling and Gunningham, 2015; Rowe, Dempsey and Gibbs, 2016). Efforts to shape investment in fossil fuel companies have long formed part of TCCG. Initiatives like CDP and the Investor Network on Climate Risk, for instance, arose out of interactions between environmental NGOs and institutional investors, and in CDP’s case, UNEP. But from 2010 onwards, after a particular campaign at Swarthmore College in the United States, and stimulated by an article by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone (McKibben, 2012) and then coordinated by the NGO, initiatives to divest from fossil fuel corporations have spread, especially across North America, but also in many other places. They have centred on universities, colleges and churches, but have included decisions by the Norwegian government pension fund and the Church of England. These take one element in the logic of investor action but orient it towards divesting from companies directly involved in fossil fuel production.

This logic is partly based on a shift in climate change political discourse that occurred from around 2012 onwards, towards an ‘end of the fossil fuel era’ frame, which was advocated by McKibben and became widespread in academic circles, notably with an influential article by McGlade and Ekins (2015). The 2014 Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and the Paris Agreement itself were both widely interpreted as signalling this in more institutionalised settings. The IPCC (2014) stated that for a scenario that would have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 2°C, ‘net emissions’ would have to be zero or even negative during the second half of the 21st century. The report does not explicitly state that this entails eliminating fossil fuels entirely, but it does show that the zero- or low-carbon (with the latter excluding all fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage) energy sources need to be very close to 100 per cent of the energy mix by 2100 (IPCC, 2014). The Paris Agreement took up the IPCC’s ‘net zero emissions’ frame and embedded it as a goal, whilst also assuming a role for so-called negative emissions technologies, which led many to frame Paris as the beginning of the end for fossil fuels, including Greenpeace, Al Gore, Desmog and Avaaz (Avaaz, 2015; Grandia, 2015; Naidoo, 2015; Vidal and Vaughan, 2015).

Furthermore, several reports emerged arguing that fossil fuel companies were liabilities as investments, since as governments act to limit emissions to meet the 2°C goal, this would mean in practice that fossil fuel reserves would have to be left in the ground. They represented ‘unburnable carbon’ and therefore ‘stranded assets’ (e.g. Berners-Lee and Clark, 2013; Carbon Tracker Initiative, 2014). The point for divestment activists like McKibben was that constructive engagement with fossil fuel companies was no longer possible. Existing investor initiatives had been initially framed where one of the possible outcomes was that investors would shift away from fossil fuel interests (Paterson, 2001). In practice, however, initiatives like CDP or the Investor Network on Climate Risk, or the Financial Stability Board’s high-level Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, have ended up primarily having effects on corporate managers via the information they have generated and enabling investors to become somewhat more active in their dealing with companies they invest in – deploying ‘voice’ rather than ‘exit’ (Hirschman, 1970). But if the aim is no longer a ‘low-carbon’ transition but a ‘zero-carbon’ one, such transparency-based measures may become vehicles not merely for risk-management but for the fundamental transformation of fossil fuel companies. Correspondingly, divestment becomes a type of strategic governance activity to effect a broad delegitimation of fossil fuel companies per se, seeking to eliminate rather than reform them, and using investor power as a means to that end. As such, it is a form of TCCG that involves the investment community in direct forms of climate governance but also includes efforts to influence the fossil fuel sector.

4.4.4 TCCG and the Landscape of Polycentric Climate Governance

Together, these three cases point to some interesting new directions in the polycentric governance of climate change. In the case of both clean energy investment and carbon markets, disparate TCCG initiatives function to extend and give substance to the aims, objectives and modalities prescribed in the Paris Agreement as well as fill gaps concerning actors, sectors and regions poorly represented in the UNFCCC process. They do this by demonstrating, financing and implementing projects and investments that contribute to the broad aims of the Agreement. Clean energy and carbon markets are areas where there has been significant change in TCCG, and we can see very clearly how the Paris Agreement has begun to affect these areas of governance. In the former case, this is due to the enhanced ambition of the Agreement. But the latter case shows how it revived the possibility of carbon markets at the international level, but in a way which will be very different in institutional terms to the markets (and the initiatives to govern them) that emerged both within the Kyoto Protocol and in its shadow.

By contrast, fossil fuel divestment has provided a novel twist on the shape of TCCG, which could have significant interaction effects across the governance complex if its momentum continues. Bulkeley et al. (2014) showed that only a small percentage of initiatives within TCCG were involved in contesting dominant norms and practices, measured in terms of either the overall ideology they espoused or the types of governance activities they engaged in. Divestment, however, perhaps signals a shift in the balance within TCCG towards more radical forms of practice. If so, it fits well with Hadden’s (2015) argument that was a marked shift to more contentious practices among transnational NGOs at climate summits after 2008. Such actions at summits have been mirrored not only in the divestment movement but also in direct action aimed at keeping fossil fuels in the ground, notably against new oil pipelines across North America, and fracking in parts of Europe and elsewhere; an extension of the delegitimation strategy that challenges the social license to operate of fossil fuel companies.

4.5 Conclusions

After two decades, TCCG has come to be recognised as a substantive arena of climate governance in both academic and policy circles. If the establishment of TCCG was forged through, and in some senses required its distinction from, the multilateral climate process, the recent history of climate governance dominated by the creation and aftermath of the Paris Agreement has witnessed stronger interactions between these arenas as TCCG becomes both formally recognised and orchestrated by actors within the UNFCCC. However, the ‘inherent messiness’ of these interactions when seen alongside the known deficiencies of polycentricity (Biermann et al., 2009; Jordan et al., 2015) requires further research.

Despite its increased prevalence and profile, it is important to remember that TCCG remains a far from universal phenomenon. The North–South gap in both participation and action implies, for instance, that developing country–based actors do not have a similar impact on the definition of objectives. This might in turn undermine political support for effective engagement of non-state and subnational actors in the UNFCCC, even when they play a crucial role in the provision of additional means necessary to meet targets in NDCs by developing countries. Especially when such imbalances in participation serve to lend weight to Northern framings and initiatives on climate governance, they may encounter opposition from Southern governments to their recognition and inclusion under the umbrella of multilateral climate governance. At the same time, it is important to recognise that the partiality of our picture of TCCG may be a result of how it is defined and observed, and that although our understanding of TCCG has advanced considerably in recent years, mapping and understanding the phenomenon continues to present significant challenges, which in turn creates a need for future work.

This chapter has also identified the issue of evaluating the impact of TCCG as a significant challenge. While existing studies provide helpful information regarding the process through which partnerships might have impact, we need more systematic studies of the actual outcomes and effects of partnerships to fully assess their critical role in global climate governance (van der Ven et al., 2017). The most important aspect of this in relation to polycentric climate governance is to think about effectiveness in relation to the interactions across different initiatives. In a polycentric system, there are traditional forms of ‘orchestration’ of interactions between different specific sites or practices of governance (Hale and Roger, 2014), but also forms of mutual adjustment (Ostrom, 1999). These interactions and linkages are only beginning to be studied (Hale and Roger, 2014; Betsill et al., 2015; Hickmann, 2015; see also Chapter 10).

While we are starting to build a picture of the kinds of TCCG innovation that have emerged in the post-Paris era, our understanding of the ways in which specific forms of TCCG are taking shape remains relatively limited. Cases of clean energy, carbon markets and divestment reveal rather different patterns and forms of interaction between the multilateral regime and TCCG initiatives, revealing both centrifugal and centripetal dynamics. For example, many of the transnational city and business initiatives now frame themselves explicitly as contributing to the Paris Agreement, rather than as alternatives to the UNFCCC process (which was not always the case). They are adopting some of the intergovernmental goals (like the 1.5°C target) and are finding frameworks for coordination through the Marrakech Partnership and elsewhere. At the same time (and to the extent that divestment becomes more widely adopted and starts to have effects on the legitimacy of fossil fuel companies), this suggests that TCCG, and by extension polycentric climate governance as a whole, may be becoming more of a contested field, where the interactions are not only functional but properly political. Divestment arguably constitutes a true ‘innovation’ (Jordan and Huitema, 2014) in climate governance through the delegitimation of fossil fuels, such that in some contexts, the burden of proof is on those seeking to argue why we should invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure rather than on those promoting clean energy. The conflicts over pipelines in North America or new-build coal mines in Europe and Australia seem to provide some evidence in favour of this – those promoting pipelines are subject to increasing amounts of scrutiny where the presumption is no longer automatically in favour of the construction of new high-carbon infrastructure. This revival of conflict in climate governance is a reminder that underlying the technical, almost managerial language of polycentric climate governance, as with any similar concept, are deep conflicts of interest and vision at the heart of climate change politics.

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5 City and Subnational Governance High Ambitions, Innovative Instruments and Polycentric Collaborations?

Jeroen van der Heijden

‘Our struggle for global sustainability will be lost or won in cities.’

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General (2012)
5.1 Introduction

Cities and local communities will play a key role in climate change adaptation and mitigation (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2003; Parnell, 2016; Jayne and Ward, 2017). Already in Local Agenda 21 (UNCED, 1992), adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, they were recognised and explicitly mentioned as an important site for climate action. Fast forward to the mid-2010s: the Climate Summit for Local Leaders was hosted, in parallel to the Paris Conference of the Parties (COP) in 2015. This event was attended by many urban leaders and gained much recognition in the climate negotiations that resulted in the Paris Agreement. At COP22 in Marrakech in 2016, the parallel Climate Summit for Local and Regional Leaders was held. Again, this event provided cities and other local actors with an opportunity to influence international climate change negotiations. Similarly, cities were a central focus of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals of 2015. Meanwhile, the New Urban Agenda resulting from the bi-decennial HABITAT Conference in 2016 has a strong focus on the role of cities in climate change mitigation and adaptation (United Nations, 2016).

When surveying these developments, one might easily assume that cities are already an integral part of international climate governance (see Chapter 4). Unfortunately, the reality is less positive. In international policymaking, cities are not recognised as formal actors – after all, cities are sites as well as actors when it comes to climate action. They still have to break through institutional boundaries to make themselves heard at international climate negotiations and be recognised in international agreements. The side events at the COPs are exactly that – side events, not formal parts of the negotiations – and the Sustainable Development Goals, for example, are not even referenced in the Paris Agreement. Moreover, the Paris Agreement does not explicitly refer to cities, urban geographies or local settlements as actors or sites of governing, but mentions ‘country-driven’ processes as the key principle for organising climate action (United Nations, 2015: Articles 7, 9 and 11). In short, there is much talk at the international level about the importance of urban climate governance, but little is done to empower cities – as actors – taking meaningful action, nor is there much coordination or cohesion between the different international forums engaged with climate change governance in how they envisage the role of cities in climate action.

In response, cities themselves have become involved, as actors, in local and international climate governance interventions, experiments and networks (Hoffmann, 2011; van der Heijden, 2014; Bulkeley, Castán Broto and Edwards, 2015). This is illustrative of polycentric governance – albeit that cities and the networks they form can best be understood as units within a polycentric system rather than a specific domain (cf. Ostrom, 2010). That is, acting as (partly) independent actors, city governments and other urban leaders have begun to organise themselves around specific urban climate challenges to better understand how these can best be addressed. They do so on regional, national and international scales, following more or less formalised rules. Thus, we see multiple governing authorities acting, as explained in this chapter, at different scales, and exercising considerable independence in making and implementing norms and rules – i.e. matching the essential definition of polycentric governance identified in Chapter 1 (see also Ostrom, Tiebout and Warren, 1961; Ostrom, 1990).

In what follows, three related topics are addressed to better explain the role of cities as units of polycentric climate governance. First, cities often set higher climate governance ambitions than the nation states they are in (Reckien et al., 2014). What explains this tendency of cities seeking to outperform and thus act independently of national governments? Second, cities are increasingly becoming sites and actors of experimentation with innovative governance instruments, including eco-financing and ‘urban laboratories’ (van der Heijden, 2016b). What drives cities to experiment with innovative governance instruments in the first place? Third, cities have begun to break out of traditional top-down, national-regional-local hierarchies and act in trans-local networks (Acuto and Rayner, 2016). How do these networks seek to overcome regional and national barriers to climate governance, and what barriers do these networks raise themselves for cities in responding to climate change? Finally, whilst the literature on these three topics – and polycentric urban climate governance more broadly – has expanded rapidly since the early 2000s, it has a strong focus on a relatively small number of cities from the global North (Evans, Karvonen and Raven, 2016). This chapter therefore concludes with a reflection on how applicable it is for all cities in the world – including, crucially, those in the global South. It also identifies what further research is required to understand and support the full potential that cities hold as actors in – and sites of – polycentric climate governance.

5.2 High Ambitions at the Local Level

From the early 2000s onwards, cities have been in a healthy competition to be at the forefront of emission reduction efforts. For example, Sydney aims to cut its emissions by 70 per cent from 2006 levels by 2030, and New York has set itself the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent below 2005 levels by 2050. What makes the ambitions of these cities – and others like them (C40 Research Team and Arup, 2014) – of particular interest is that they go above and beyond the ambitions set by their respective nation states. Indeed, Sydney and New York’s ambitions are more than double those of their respective countries. Comparing city-level emissions and reduction ambitions with those of nation states is somewhat like comparing apples and oranges (emissions from carbon-intensive sectors such as manufacturing and mining are normally not included in city emissions). Nevertheless, the size of this difference begs a question: why do cities set such ambitious mitigation targets in the first place?

In answer to this question, various reasons are highlighted in the literature. These can be clustered into four main themes: cities as a source and victim of climate change; cities as the low-hanging fruit in climate action; the rise of green growth and ecological modernisation thinking in cities; and national political support for urban climate action.

Starting with the first of these, cities are often considered both a key contributor to and a main victim of climate change. Most resources, including energy, are consumed in cities, and most wastes, including carbon emissions, are produced in cities. This makes cities – and particularly the high consumerist lifestyle that characterises modern urban life – a key contributor to climate change (Dodman, 2009). Because cities are often characterised by high population densities, and because cities represent the geographical epicentre of many economic activities, it will be in cities where climate change–related and other disasters will strike the hardest (IPCC, 2014). Seeking to prevent the devastating effects of such disasters, or simply seeking to save on the costs of operating cities by reducing waste or resource consumption, city governments around the world have implemented myriad regulatory interventions, subsidies and taxes to steer citizens towards more environmentally sustainable forms of living. A typical example is the emergency energy requirements introduced by the government of Tokyo in 2011. These were adopted in response to power shortages experienced from closing down all nuclear power plants after the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident. Whilst these emergency requirements aimed at relieving the electricity net, they had the positive side effect of considerable energy savings (and thus city-related carbon emission reductions), particularly from large offices. Many large office users continued their reduced energy consumption after the emergency requirements were lifted (Nishida, Hua and Okamoto, 2016).

Second, cities have access to much low-hanging fruit. Of all anthropogenic activities, it is only in constructing, maintaining and using cities (and particularly the built-up part of cities, or simply, buildings) that we see a unique combination of well-trialled, readily available technology and knowledge to achieve emission reductions at net-cost benefit and at a large scale (IPCC, 2014). In many areas – including manufacturing, agriculture and non-city transport – some of these conditions are also present, but not in the same, unique combination. In the United States, for example, possible building-related energy savings of up to 23 per cent are worth double the costs of upfront investments, with a return rate of ten years – $1.2 trillion can be saved if $520 billion is invested (McKinsey, 2009). Some studies even go so far as to forecast that fully carbon-neutral built environments can be achieved in the United States and China by applying all currently available technologies at a net economic gain (Lovins, 2013). Again, seeking to capitalise on such expected savings, city governments around the globe have been steering their citizens to forms of living that are less carbon-intensive than what is formally required by their national governments.

A third and related argument revolves around the paradigm of green growth or economic modernisation (Dryzek, 2005). It is often argued, and sometimes empirically observed, that cities compete with each other to become the most climate-friendly city, seeking to attract investors and citizens that have a ‘green’ orientation (McCann, 2013). The underlying assumption here is that city policymakers are mainly interested in economic prosperity, creating jobs and gaining votes by keeping citizens happy (Schragger, 2016). By creating an image of environmental sustainability and climate action and/or rewarding specific forms of investments, for instance reducing property taxes to encourage more energy-efficient buildings (van der Heijden, 2015), authorities seek to attract firms. This in itself can result in job creation. At the same time, creating an image of environmental sustainability and climate action may attract ‘creative’ people that may provide an additional boost to the economic competitiveness of a city (Florida, 2005). Such images run the risk, however, of having a merely symbolic function, with cities being unable to live up to some of the high promises they make (Johnson, Toly and Schroeder, 2015).

A final argument, but one that is sometimes hidden between the lines, is that many cities have set climate change ambitions that are higher than those of the nation states they are in simply because they were actually mandated or supported by national governments to do so (Homsey and Warner, 2015; van der Heijden, 2017; see also Chapter 3). Despite its many flaws, Local Agenda 21 can be credited for recognising cities and their governments as an important level for climate action and addressing other societal problems. Following on from Agenda 21, national governments began requiring, supporting and promoting local action (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2003; Jayne and Ward, 2017). Returning to the example of Sydney, in 2011 the Australian government launched the National Urban Policy (Australian Government, 2011). This policy required that all jurisdictions have in place the planning systems to deliver nine specific goals. These include better urban design, more environmentally sensitive new homes and offices and preparations for climate change and natural disasters (Albanese, 2013). Seeking compliance with this policy, Australian states and territories developed long-term regional and metropolitan plans and required cities to draw up strategic development plans and indicate how they were going to meet national requirements. Being exposed to pressure from higher levels of government as well as urban climate mitigation ambitions expressed by other cities resulted in a race to the top between Australian cities to set far-reaching carbon emission reduction ambitions (COAG, 2012). Therefore, even though cities may behave as partly independent actors in polycentric climate governance, the interactions between them and other actors should be borne in mind.

5.3 Experimental Urban Climate Governance and Innovative Governance Instruments

Around the globe, cities have also become highly active in experimenting with novel governance processes and innovative governance instruments to address local and trans-local climate challenges. This ‘experimental governance’ is characterised by iterative rounds of trialling governance instruments within a bounded jurisdiction or population, with the ambition to adapt the instruments based on lessons learnt and to ultimately scale it up to a larger jurisdiction or population (Hoffmann, 2011; Ansell and Bartenberger, 2016). Scholars have identified hundreds of urban climate governance experiments ranging from very local ones to some at an international scale (Bai, Roberts and Chen, 2010; Bulkeley and Castán Broto, 2013; van der Heijden, 2016b). Examples include the Chicago Sustainable Backyards programme that incentivises households to create water-efficient gardens, through to the international Transition Towns Network that provides tools and processes for citizens to take local climate action (van der Heijden, 2014). These experiments seek to act on barriers that stand in the way of effective urban climate action. Such barriers may be political or legal (such as the difficulty of mandating retrofits and upgrades for existing parts of cities), financial (such as split incentives between those who pay and those who gain from urban climate action), technological/behavioural (such as a mismatch between sustainable design and sustainable use of cities) and social (such as the risk of negatively affecting disadvantaged groups by requiring costly climate action) (van der Heijden, 2017).

The turn to experimental urban climate governance observed since the early 2000s is more than a pragmatic, local government–led approach to solving problems experienced in implementing national requirements (see Chapter 6). Urban climate governance experiments bring together local governments, private actors and civil society actors in formal and structured processes of developing, demonstrating and trialling new forms of authority and governance instruments to address climate challenges at the city level (Bulkeley et al., 2015). Scholars are confident about their ability to draw lessons from experiments about what governance interventions work, where and how, and to scale them up or extend them out across the city in question, and even to other cities and countries (Sassen, 2015).

But what drives cities to experiment with innovative governance instruments in the first place? Again, the literature identifies various motivations. A first and somewhat structuralist understanding relates to the privatisation of (local) public service delivery that started in the 1970s (Hodge, 2000; van der Heijden, 2010), the ‘reinventing of government’ and implementation of new public management practices since the 1980s (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992; Hood, 1995) and the larger shift from government to governance that has been documented since the late 1990s (Rhodes, 1996, 2007). City governments are no longer considered the executive branch of national governments, merely implementing national legislation and regulation (Pierre, 2011). They are increasingly expected to deliver local services themselves (or have local services delivered by others) in an effective and efficient manner, and have to be transparent about their actions and be fully accountable for these – for instance through ‘smart city’ rankings and urban climate indexes (López-Ruiz, Alfaro-Navarro and Nevado-Peña, 2014). Facing these increasing expectations – and often assuming that satisfying them aids local economic development (an expectation that is not always based on sound evidence; see Schragger, 2016) – local governments then have little choice but to reach out to local private and civil society actors and search for innovative governance instruments. This is even more the case in a policy area like climate change, where city governments lack experience or prior knowledge about which interventions yield the most desirable outcomes.

Another literature assigns more agency to local governments, private and civil society actors. Rather than considering changing institutional and other structural conditions as forces that tie them together, it considers that all governments wish to be actively involved in addressing urban climate challenges in collaborative processes and experiments (Bingham, 2006; Hohn and Neuer, 2006). This branch of the urban climate governance literature has very high hopes and expectations for the outcomes of these experiments (see Chapter 6). By involving a wide range of stakeholders in the development of governance instruments, their tacit knowledge can be used. This is expected to result in instruments that are ‘smarter’ than those developed by somewhat distant bureaucrats (Lobel, 2012). Also, by involving a range of stakeholders, instruments can be developed through a consensus-building process that allows for deeper reflection on the advantages and disadvantages of the instrument for the various parties involved. This is expected to bridge their diverse and sometimes competing views (Bulkeley and Mol, 2003). It is further expected to increase the acceptance of the instruments that are developed and implemented and, correspondingly, to improve compliance with them (Walters, 2004). In terms of the design of the new governance instruments, scholars have focused on the move away from traditional deterrence-based, hard-law instruments that penalise non-compliance, such as building codes, to soft-law instruments that reward compliance and provide positive incentives. Such positive incentives come, for example, in the form of information, the ability to advertise compliant behaviour or some form of financial compensation (van der Heijden, 2016a). Scholars further point to a move away from mandatory governance instruments towards those that ask for voluntary commitments, again assuming that compliance is more likely when individuals and firms commit voluntarily to them (van der Heijden, 2014).

That being said, an emerging body of more empirically informed literature is rather more critical of the ability of cities to actually deliver on these normative expectations. It highlights that there is often a normative assumption in the urban governance literature that all experimentation is beneficial, and that whilst there is much talk about experiments and innovative instruments, their development and day-to-day performance are poorly understood (Johnson et al., 2015). The small empirical knowledge base highlights that challenges abound, and are particularly found when it comes to scaling-up and scaling-out experiments. For example, rules and regulations may lag behind to formalise experiments into urban policy, economic conditions and finance may work against scaling or the experimental setting may not fully reflect the real-world setting an instrument has to operate in (Bulkeley, 2013; Schroeder, Burch and Rayner, 2013). A specific risk associated with urban climate governance experiments is that they target frontrunners and not the majority of firms and citizens. Hence, there tends to be a mismatch between what climate action frontrunners can achieve and what ‘ordinary’ firms and citizens are willing to accept and are capable of delivering (van der Heijden, 2017).

In short, experiments are a popular focus for researchers and practitioners, but whether they will be successful in delivering governance instruments capable of quickly reducing carbon emissions and resource consumption at the city level remains an open question. In fact, many experiments have been found to result only in rather piecemeal solutions at best. Moreover, cities that are considered leading and lauded for their example-setting roles often are among the ones with the biggest environmental footprints (Johnson et al., 2015). More problematically, urban climate experimentation is sometimes used to justify a neo-liberal development agenda and not an especially environmentally or socially sustainable one at that (Evans et al., 2016). For example, it is highly laudable that certain multinationals are collaborating with cities to experiment with new information technology solutions to reduce vehicle emissions or city-related energy consumption – so called smart cities. But questions need to be asked about whether they do so out of altruistic motivations or whether they see this as pilot projects for creating new markets for their products (van der Heijden, 2014). Of course, both could in principle be true – hence the desirability of assessing the performance of climate governance experiments against multiple criteria (see Chapter 14).

5.4 Trans-local Collaborations

Yet another manifestation of polycentric urban climate governance can be found in the ongoing growth of trans-local or city-to-city networks, as well as a growth of city-to-citizen and city-to-business networks (van der Heijden, 2016b). Whilst city networks, city collaborations, sister-city agreements and so on are not a fully novel development, the active networking of cities in the area of climate action stands out from earlier, somewhat more passive initiatives (Jayne and Ward, 2017). These active networks are important but informal bodies at trans-local and international levels, comprising formal bodies at the local level (Jordan and Turnpenny, 2015). They allow cities to learn from each other, jointly experiment and seek governance solutions to urban climate problems and, perhaps most important, to bypass their national governments in the international arena. Three well-known city networks are ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (originally the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. The first is an international network of more than 1,500 cities, towns and regions founded in 1990; the second is a network of more than 80 of the world’s largest cities founded in 2005; and the third is a network of more than 7,000 local and regional authorities (mostly from European countries) founded in 2008.

To what extent do these trans-local networks help overcome regional and national barriers to climate governance, and what barriers do these networks themselves raise for cities in responding to climate change? Sometimes a distinction is made between ‘first-wave’ and ‘second-wave’ networks. The first attempt made to push cities to act on climate change was made by ICLEI. It strongly focused on trialling and disseminating knowledge about technological solutions for climate mitigation. Following on from this, academics began writing ‘best practice’ books that were often linked to the then-popular notion of green growth and ecological modernisation. The first-wave city networks strongly revolved around creating knowledge for cities by cities (Jayne and Ward, 2017). C40 and the Covenant of Mayors can be considered ‘second-wave’ city networks. For these second-wave city networks, knowledge creation and dissemination is still important, but they also seek to have the voice of cities included in international climate negotiations (Johnson et al., 2015; it has been argued that first-wave cities are now engaged in this too). Representatives of ICLEI, C40 and the Covenant of Mayors were, for example, highly active at COP21 and COP22 (see earlier). Such international events allow cities to showcase their best practices, and challenge their nation states and others to go one step further in their commitments to climate action.

There is some evidence that city networks help overcome regional and national barriers to climate governance, including the difficulty of developing and implementing mandatory regulation and the lack of institutional capital in, particularly, smaller municipalities (van der Heijden, 2014). Progressive cities in less progressive nations may find like-minded cities in more progressive nations – there is an abundance of information available for members and non-members on the websites of these networks. By combining resources (funds, staff and so on), these networks are, in theory, capable of carrying out more rigorous experiments than cities can achieve on their own (Bansard, Pattberg and Widerberg, 2016). That said, even though such networks are reporting successes, it remains doubtful how valid these statements really are. The quality of data underlying the statements is sometimes questionable, simply because it is exceptionally difficult to measure reductions in carbon emissions or even energy consumption at the city level (Bulkeley, 2013). The networks might attract already well-performing cities rather than poor-performing ones and provide an unrepresentatively high willingness of cities to take climate action (van der Heijden, 2017). The reported successes might work in one city but not another. Thus, a big challenge for the climate networks is to find a balance between providing very general and very tailored information on governance interventions (Johnson et al., 2015). Finally, cities may seek to join these networks seeking co-benefits that may not always stem from a genuine concern about climate change. For example, by participating in the networks, cities hope to attract investors, new workers and residents (Brenner, 2004; Jonas, Gibbs and While, 2011).

In short, while the urban climate governance literature was initially positive about the opportunities provided by city networks and their potential to spur urban climate action, recently it has taken a more critical turn. Moving beyond questioning the successes reported by these networks, scholars have pointed out that they easily become ‘networks of pioneers for pioneers’ (Kern and Bulkeley, 2009). Rather than being all-inclusive, the networks run the risk of becoming exclusive clubs that only provide benefits (such as knowledge on urban climate action, or being represented in international climate change negotiations) to their members, somewhat at odds with some of the normative assumptions of polycentric theory (see Chapter 1). Others have highlighted that even members of a network do not always have equal access to all the benefits of membership (Lee, 2015). For example, cities in the global North may find it easier to bear the costs of sending representatives to networking events than cities in the global South. An issue that has received less attention in the literature thus far is that these networks may produce an illusion of active and successful cities in the area of climate action (van der Heijden, 2017). While both ICLEI and C40, for example, proudly advertise the proportion of the global urban population that they affect – 25 and 15 per cent, respectively (C40, n.d.; ICLEI, n.d.) – it could just as well be argued that after three decades, many cities are still not members.

Furthermore, by looking at the urban governance experiments and innovative urban governance instruments that these networks consider illustrative of outstanding performance, it becomes clear that many only deliver quite moderate rather than transformative climate action. For example, the C40 network has an annual awards ceremony, the Climate Change Leadership Awards, to ‘[reward] important, innovative policies and programmes that reduce emissions and improve sustainability’ and to ‘recognize those successes, catalyze ambition, and share lessons with cities around the world’ (C40, n.d.). In 2013, one of these awards was given to 1200 Buildings in Melbourne, a programme that supports property owners in finding finance for building retrofits. At the time that it was awarded for being a ‘world-leading governance innovation for improved urban sustainability’ (C40, n.d.), only a mere five buildings had actually been retrofitted. In 2014, an award was made to the Amsterdam Climate and Investment Fund, a revolving loan fund. This was made to the city of Amsterdam for its ‘leading position in the transition to low-carbon cities’ (C40, n.d.), but at the time it had only issued some five loans, mainly to support highly conventional technological upgrades of buildings (see, for further examples, van der Heijden, 2017). If such action is among the best within the member cities, one may wonder what the rest are up to, and whether cities are really being truly challenged by their city networks to take ambitious climate actions.

There are, of course, good reasons for these city-to-city networks to provide their members with exclusive rewards, to put them in the spotlight in the international arena and to create a narrative of climate activity initiated and supported by them. The supply of networks is sufficient – to the extent that some have to compete for members. On a more positive note, showcasing good practice, however marginal, may spur other cities to take action too. But too much promise and too few results could just as easily backfire. For example, whilst ICLEI initially attracted many cities in the United States, substantial numbers have terminated their memberships as a result of changing political ideologies, interest group pressures and declining membership benefits (Krause, Yi and Feicock, 2015). It has been observed that some of these networks have over time become increasingly neo-liberal, seeking to expand and hold their membership base. Rather than a race to the top, there is a risk of a race to the bottom, in which the survival of the network becomes an end in itself (cf. Johnson et al., 2015). Put differently, the (dominant) city networks may even become a victim of their own success. With a growing membership base came a need to professionalise and formalise, but with the move from being voluntary networks of cities to being large and powerful city interest groups came all the problems that are typically found in bureaucratic organisations – turf wars, a focus on quantity over quality and managerialism (see further Wilson, 1989). That said, absent a benchmark of what constitutes ‘good performance’, it may be difficult for cities and their networks to spur city-level action that is genuinely transformative. Without that, it is also very difficult to assess the efficacy of cities as units in systems of polycentric governance.

5.5 Conclusions

This chapter has addressed polycentric urban climate governance in action. When stepping back and reflecting on the various examples and forms of polycentric urban climate governance discussed, a number of observations stand out. First, city governments often set higher climate action ambitions than the nation states they are in. Second, cities are very active in experimenting with novel climate governance instruments. In doing so, cities self-organise active collaborations with private and civil society actors. Third, cities participate in trans-local and often international networks to develop and share information about urban climate mitigation and adaptation, and seek to influence international climate negotiations. Policymakers, practitioners and academics often express high hopes for city governments and other urban leaders in addressing climate change. The forms and examples of (polycentric) urban climate governance discussed in this chapter are repeatedly used to argue that it will be cities rather than nation states that will take the most meaningful climate actions in the future (Barber, 2013; Sassen, 2015; Knieling, 2016). One could frame it even more dramatically than this, as did the former UN Secretary-General, quoted in the epigram of this chapter.

But how well-founded is Ban Ki-moon’s trust in the capacity of cities (including local governments and private and civil society actors) to take meaningful climate action? In line with other critical scholars (Johnson et al., 2015), this chapter urges some caution when considering cities ‘the key to addressing the global climate change problem’ (C40, n.d.; emphasis added). First, some care. The forms and examples of polycentric urban climate governance discussed in this chapter point to a growing reliance on private and other non-governmental actors in collaborative governance processes. Urban governance theory easily assumes that efficiency through such collaborations and democracy go hand in hand (Davies and Imbroscio, 2009). Yet the involvement of private and other non-governmental actors, particularly multinational companies, pushes urban climate governance further towards neo-liberalism and market-based interventions, and further strengthens the focus on technological fixes rather than behavioural change (Johnson et al., 2015). Also, with cities acting independently of their national governments, national climate policies no longer ensure that all citizens contribute equally to and benefit from climate action. This begs a need for stronger accountability systems (see Chapter 19), involving (perhaps elected) city officials who can represent and look after the interests of all citizens, especially those more vulnerable to its impacts (Pierre, 2011).

Second, some realism. Whilst the polycentric urban climate governance literature is burgeoning, scholars – myself included – only tend to focus on a handful of (leading) cities. More often than not, these are part of the three main, dominant city networks. The more active cities in these networks – the ones, incidentally, that receive the most scholarly attention – tend to be larger cities in the global North. Yet, whilst climate change is on the agenda of some of the larger cities, particularly in the global North, it should be remembered that in many others it is not: ‘[c]limate change simply remains “un-governed” in cities’ (Bulkeley, 2013: 104; see also Reckien et al., 2014). In short, we have substantial knowledge about polycentric urban climate governance in a small number of predominantly large cities in the global North, but we know very little about polycentric urban climate governance in general. Hence, we are not well equipped to determine how far cities are genuinely capable of self-organising (Johnson et al., 2015) as polycentric theory suggests. This is troubling for two reasons. First, urbanisation is taking place predominantly in the global South, particularly in Asia and Africa. Solutions that are found to ‘work’ in the global North are often found to generate less positive outcomes when transferred to the global South – or even have negative outcomes there (Gupta et al., 2015; van der Heijden, 2017). Second, it remains unclear whether the trends visible in large cities are also found in smaller ones (Sassen, 2001). Smaller cities likely face different barriers than larger cities and have fewer capacities than their larger neighbours. Hence, solutions that are found to ‘work’ in larger cities may not easily transpose to smaller ones (Homsey and Warner, 2015).

Third, some downscaling of expectations. Following on from these points, the evidence base to support claims about the opportunities and constraints of (polycentric) urban climate governance is thin at best – and at worse may be imbued with a great deal of wishful thinking. There is no doubt that city governments and other local leaders (including private and civil society actors) are organising themselves around specific urban climate challenges to better understand how these can be addressed, following more or less formalised rules, and do so independently from national governments. It is particularly hopeful to see highly progressive cities in countries that are very conservative when it comes to taking climate action – for instance those that have (or had initially) not ratified the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement (Lee, 2015). Yet the room cities have for climate action is shaped by the prevailing national, political and legal context (Johnson et al., 2015). In particular, the national, legal and policy setting hampers what cities can do locally in terms of self- and facilitative governance, limiting the possibilities for self-organisation by cities (Schroeder and Bulkeley, 2009; Schragger, 2016). Thus, some of the high hopes that have been expressed about the benefits of polycentric climate governance are not being borne out in practice. This begs the need for a more critical approach to studying polycentric urban climate governance than has hitherto been the case.

To conclude, it is difficult to determine whether polycentric urban climate governance will be ‘the key to addressing the global climate change problem’ (C40, n.d.). It is encouraging that city governments and other urban leaders have begun to reach out to each other, have begun to take climate action that reaches beyond action taken by nation states, and have not been unduly held back by the lack of formal (inter)national recognition. It is troublesome, however, that polycentric urban climate governance has been studied only in a relatively small number of cities, that we have a limited knowledge base about whether it really delivers on its promises, and that we have a very poor understanding of what this approach to governing means in areas with the very highest levels of urbanisation, namely those in the global South, and particularly Asia and Africa.

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