Nations United Paris Agreement conference on climate change.

Jonathan W. Kuyper (Stockholm University)

Years of gridlock in multilateral climate negotiations – especially in the post-Copenhagen era – led many observers and activists to conclude that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was simply too cumbersome and unwieldy to produce an international agreement. More than 190 states – with divergent interests, cultures, and histories – made a global climate treaty for curbing emissions and adapting to climatic shifts all but utopian. The addition of civil society, businesses, and sub-state groups numbering in the thousands added perspectives that only served to fragment negotiations further. Or so it was said.

As a result of multilateral scepticism, two avenues forward were touted. First many proponents suggested that the UNFCCC should be abandoned in favour of a minilateralist approach (for an overview, see Falkner 2016). David Victor, Moisés Naím, and Marco Grasso with Timmons Roberts all argued that a smaller climate club, involving just the highest emitters, should come together and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without requiring all states to sign up. Likewise Robyn Eckersley, Anthony Giddens and others argued that just the most capable, the most responsible, and the most vulnerable states could form an agreement to reduce CO2 emissions and right climate wrongs. The basic idea underpinning this approach is that a smaller number of states would more easily reach agreement and thus help mitigate climate change.

The second avenue forward was to look at the emergence of non-state initiatives designed as alternate ways to reduce emissions and build capacity (Hoffmann 2011). These policy experiments are typically endeavours by non-state actors to fill policy gaps outside of the UNFCCC system by: creating best practices between cities; starting divestment campaigns across universities; trialling new energy inventions; monitoring state action; creating multi-stakeholder dialogues; and so on. These climate experiments created a new literature to understand the sources, patterns, and effects of these initiatives and how they combined to form a polycentric system of global climate governance (Jordan et al. 2015).

In 2015 the need to move away from the UNFCCC proved somewhat misguided. The Paris Agreement defied expectations when, at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP), all states agreed to a universal climate treaty with review targets through a binding and transparent five-year global stocktake.

More fundamentally the Paris Agreement rested on two pillars. On one hand nationally determined contributions (NDC) from states were seen as a backbone to the deal. The NDCs helped overcome gridlock related to the old Annex system by allowing states to set their own targets. On the other hand non-state actors were able to pledge their own actions through the UNFCCC system. The momentum for change, International Cooperative Initiatives (ICIs), the United Nations Climate Summit, the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), the Non-state Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), and many other efforts sent credible commitments to governments that non-state actors were reducing their emissions, helping to manage adaptation, providing finance, monitoring state NDCs, and supplementing scientific knowledge.

From these two paths forward, some lessons emerged. First, minilateralism was not a viable option and did not help reach the Paris Agreement. Minilateralism is predicated on the rational efficiency of a small number of important actors reaching goals together through the reduction of transaction costs. However, due to the global nature of climate change, there was a perceived need to persevere with a large number of states. This was the right thing to do. Managing climate change does not just require good solutions, but it requires support from the state and non-state actors involved in implementation. Excluding actors from negotiations would have undercut this support (and ultimately all good agreements require support and compliance to function).

Second, efforts outside the UNFCCC were essential for reaching agreement. Without non-state actors (such as businesses and farmers) promising to reduce their emissions, or other non-state actors (such as NGOs and research organizations) acting as watchdogs, states would not have been able to commit to reduce national emissions. Moreover the transparency mechanism of the Paris Agreement relies upon non-Party stakeholder facilitation. Overall, then, the polycentric efforts of states (NDCs) and non-state actors (in their various commitments) were essential for agreement.

While it is hard to argue against the importance of the Paris Agreement, I want to conclude this blog on a more sceptical note. As already described, central to the Agreement were the myriad efforts by the UNFCCC to showcase, catalogue, mobilize, and generally promote non-state actor efforts. This strategy is typically called orchestration in the literature (Hale and Roger 2014). From the UN Climate Summit to NAZCA, the LPAA to ICIs, the UNFCCC built registries, encouraged actions, and sought to harness potential from the wider polycentric efforts of non-state actors. And in large measure, it worked. By early December of 2015, NAZCA listed more than 11000 commitments. LPAA showcases almost 100 initiatives. The UN Climate Summit led to hundreds more commitments. And the ICI portal lists around 60 major projects.

While these efforts are of course laudable, most academic work has focused on how to make these portals more effective (Widerberg and Pattberg 2015). How can we avoid double counting of commitments from one initiative to the next? How can we watch the watchdogs? How do we know that commitments are actually followed through? How do we know that efforts combine to move the world onto a (less than) 2-degree Celsius pathway?

What is being glossed over, at least to date, is whether or not these orchestration efforts are democratically legitimate? This involves asking a different set of questions. Is the UNFCCC supposed to use their authority to mobilize non-state actors and confer upon them legitimacy without some kind of clear standard-setting or sanctioning capacity? Are orchestration efforts participatory from a wide range of stakeholders, or does the Global North dominate them? Are the initiatives actually accountable to those actors affected on the ground?

Just as the Paris Agreement required an inclusive and transparent set of negotiations in which governments are accountable to their citizens (ideally), the same should be expected of orchestration efforts by the UNFCCC. People and groups affected by different initiatives should be able to participate in these efforts, help to shape their rules, hold both the UNFCCC and orchestrated non-state actors to account, and demand transparency for efforts.

Although the UNFCCC is certainly going to lengths to ensure that these orchestration efforts are published online and help showcase actions, the academic literature has focused too much on effectiveness. Because meaningful agreements require support from those they affect, it is timely to think about whether (and how) these orchestration efforts could be made more democratically legitimate, especially as we move into a post-Paris era.


Falkner, R. (2016). A Minilateral Solution for Global Climate Change? On Bargaining Efficiency, Club Benefits, and International Legitimacy. Perspectives on Politics, 14(1), 87 – 101

Jordan, A. J., Huitema, D., Hildén, M., van Asselt, H., Rayner, T. J., Schoenefeld, J., J., Tosun, J., Forster, J., & Boasson, E. L. (2015). Emergence of polycentric climate governance and its future prospects. Nature Climate Change5, 977–982.

Hale, T., & Roger, C. (2014). Orchestration and transnational climate governance. The review of international organizations9(1), 59-82.

Widerberg, O., & Pattberg, P. (2015). International Cooperative Initiatives in Global Climate Governance: Raising the Ambition Level or Delegitimizing the UNFCCC?. Global Policy6(1), 45-56.


Photo credit: UNFCCC/Flickr

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