Can bottom-up climate action save the day?

COP15 UN Climate Wall
'Voices of the People' at COP15 in 2009 - are they being heard yet? Photo: Troels Dejgaard Hansen via Flickr
Aug 2015

Climate governance has become more "bottom-up" since COP15 - what does this mean for negotiations at COP21?

After the last big make or break international climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, many political leaders will travel to Paris with considerably lower – but arguably more realistic – expectations of what big summits can achieve.  Beyond confirming their emission reduction pledges, they are unlikely to do much in Paris that is really new, other than perhaps develop the emerging political narrative on the need for complete decarbonisation by the end of this century.

Words are important because they help to set expectations, but words alone will not drive down global emissions. First and foremost, it requires policy action by nation states. States have been doing more at the national level since 2009.  Globe International’s database reveals that there were nearly 500 climate change laws and policies in 66 countries in 2013, up from only 40 in 1997.  Around 30 new policies are being adopted each year, with developing countries being especially active adopters. New policies are not limited to mitigation; the total number of new national adaptation strategies has also grown spectacularly in the last decade.

Such developments have assumed even greater importance since 2009.  Post Copenhagen, the expectation is that each state will volunteer its own policy commitment (in UN speak ‘intended nationally determined contributions’) rather than having it prescribed in a top down international agreement, akin to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  At Paris, politicians will also reinforce the need for non-state actors - businesses, local governments, academics and civil society organisations – to share the mantle of leadership to plug the big governance gaps in the UNFCCC regime.

The good news is that non state actors are rising to this challenge.  New research discussed in Nature Climate Change confirms that innovative forms of governing are appearing beneath and around the UNFCCC.  Initiatives by non-state actors have led to new standards for carbon credits, emissions accounting systems, carbon labelling schemes and collaborations between cities. Environmentalists are happy. They have long extolled the advantages of governing from the ‘bottom up’, believing it provides more scope for experimenting with new approaches, fits better with local priorities and allows deeper citizen engagement.

What has really changed is that hopes for bottom up governance have a solid basis in reality.  It leaves the overall landscape of climate governance looking more like the “polycentric” form originally advocated by the Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom believed a polycentric approach was more likely to succeed than a single, overarching system centred on the UNFCCC.  Unlike international agreements which can easily be held to ransom by a small number of states, leadership in polycentric systems can emerge from multiple sources.  This is why Ostrom advised against devoting too much effort in designing the ‘perfect’ international agreement whilst ignoring actions taken from the bottom up.

The rapid flourishing of bottom up initiatives excites social scientists and environmentalists alike because they feed into a new narrative of dynamism in a world disillusioned with the UNFCCC process.  In spite of all the resources invested in it, the inconvenient truth is that global emissions have risen since 2009.  Moreover, there remains a significant ‘gap’ between the emissions reduction pledges made in advance of Paris and what is required to ensure warming does not exceed the global target of two degrees.

Whilst welcoming the debate about new sources of leadership in climate governance, we believe that it must be firmly rooted in what is actually happening on the ground.  All too often, over-enthusiasm creeps into discussions of innovation. For example, we know that non-binding strategies are being adopted at a much faster rate than new legally binding national policies.  And as there is as yet no international body responsible for collecting information, the world is reliant upon a non-state actor - Globe International supported by academics at the LSE - to take stock of who is doing what, where, when and how.  The same goes for new forms of non-state climate action.  The UNFCCC has taken the sensible step of creating a new web portal to collect data.  But there is much more research to be done if we are understand why and how non-state initiatives are launched and spread across the world.

We are also surprisingly ignorant about what the new forms of governance contribute by way of emission reductions.  This vital evaluation task is proving to be both technically complex and politically sensitive.  But politically, evaluations have an important role to play in governing.  Both Ostrom and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have argued that politicians are better able to ambitious policies when they can demonstrate the co-benefits of acting, for instance in terms of human health or economic competitiveness. But as timely policy evaluations are often lacking, politicians do not necessarily always have that evidence to hand. There is a curious paradox at work here, because politicians are often unwilling to invest in independent evaluation capacities in case they reveal embarrassing examples of under-performance.

Even less is known about the performance of non-state initiatives.  At a minimum, they should incorporate monitoring and evaluation procedures. But in general, many do not.  More fundamentally, do they endure long enough to perform? Again, the emerging evidence suggest that many survive but some quietly sink, particularly after states withdraw support. Many of the public-private partnerships adopted at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 have suffered this ignominious fate.

Climate governance has become considerably more bottom up - or ‘polycentric’ - since 2009, and now spans many levels (from the international to the local) and combines private and public action. It is becoming ever clearer that top down and bottom up governance are in fact highly interconnected.  This implies that some of the initially high hopes that bottom-up governing would magically spring up and save the day, should be tempered somewhat.  Academics can help here by investing more time and effort in teasing apart the interconnections between actions taken at different levels.  And they make efforts to catalogue and evaluate who is doing what – seldom an immediate political priority - building on existing activities both within and outside the UNFCCC.  Given these knowledge gaps, the world should continue to strive for an as ambitious an international agreement as possible whilst governance experiments continue into the opportunities and risks presented by greater polycentrism.

[1] Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UEA, Norwich, NR47TJ, UK; 00 44 1603 592552;