by Ross Gillard, University of Leeds

International efforts under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rely on ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’. These contributions represent national level efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which underpin the international community’s response to the threats of dangerous climate change. But what determines how ambitious, or successful, nation states will be in their domestic climate commitments? Will they be able to overcome some of the all too familiar impediments to innovative and radical policymaking such as inertia, risk aversion, re-election pressures, lobbying from vested interests and cross-departmental co-ordination? Taking a close look at stand out cases of ‘climate leaders’ and the challenges they face can help to answer these questions and provide insights for many other countries who are following their low-carbon pathways.

The UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) is one such example. The passing of its world-leading legislation on binding emissions reductions targets was followed by a period of prolonged austerity policy in response to the economic crash. It has also looked somewhat out of step with successive governments’ commitment to a small state ideology and reducing regulatory intervention. Specifically, climate policy departments (as well as many others) had their budgets cut significantly and policymakers found it increasingly difficult to get buy-in from senior politicians who were no longer being swayed by the long-term economics and non-fiscal benefits of climate change mitigation[i].

In order for the government to meet its own national level targets over the coming years, there needs to be new climate driven policies (see figure). But such policymaking has not been forthcoming and in some areas has actually been weakened or removed. In response to these blockages and concerns about a growing ‘policy gap’ between emissions reduction targets and the specific policy instruments needed to achieve them, the climate policy community in the UK have pursued a number of strategies. Broadly speaking these strategies can be described as working with gatekeepers to unlock political capital and seeking out non-state actor support in order to collaborate to innovate. Underpinning these activities is the assumption that mobilising multiple sites of authority can help overcome slow centralised progress – an assumption that is shared by advocates of polycentric governance.

Source: Committee on Climate Change (2017), Meeting Carbon Budgets: Closing the policy gap. June 2017 report to Parliament.

So far the results of this polycentric approach to climate policy, in the UK case, have been ambiguous.

Internationally the UK has tried to hold on to its perceived climate leadership position, playing an important role in shaping the Paris Agreement (whose interim target setting resembles that of the Climate Change Act) but choosing not make its domestic targets more stringent in response to the new 1.5 degrees target. The European Union has been another source of international pressure on domestic climate policy. Yet, the Brexit process will see the UK lose existing climate and energy policy frameworks as well as a significant source of pro-climate political influence.

Sub-nationally there is more positivity but there are also entrenched institutional limitations. The devolved nations of Scotland and Wales have shown greater ambition in their emissions reductions plans and support for their vast (e.g. Scottish wind power) and innovative (e.g. Welsh tidal lagoons) renewable energy sectors. However, the relationship between devolved actors and central government can hinder such initiatives, especially when sufficient resources do not accompany power sharing. Combining both, some English City Regions have secured new powers via City Deals with the UK Treasury and are prioritising low-carbon sectors through networks such as the Core Cities group and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Multi-actor networks and collaborations involving the private sector and civil society are also showing their potential. Public and private finance initiatives in the low-carbon sector, such as the Carbon Trust’s Offshore Wind Accelerator, have been successful at driving down cost to the extent that it is now cheaper than new nuclear and gas. At Davos in 2017 business leaders challenged governments to do more to keep up with their low-carbon transformation of the economy, but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears as President Drumpf continues to try to prioritise the coal industry and the UK government has sold off its Green Investment Bank. Lastly, low-carbon energy co-operatives and sustainable lifestyle projects are rhetorically championed by government but often struggle to upscale their efforts or have any influence of policy because of unpredictable levels of financial support and restrictive framings of public participation.

Ultimately, the UK case shows that having a polycentric network can enhance the opportunities for circumventing blockages to climate policy development and can provide communication channels and economies of scale that drive innovation. However, the efficacy of these networks may be hindered by unchanged power relations – that favour the status quo high carbon forms of society and economics – and risk legitimising neoliberal forms of governance that instrumentalise actors and result in further state retrenchment. At a time when supposedly leading nation states appear to be lagging behind scientific, economic and public expectations of a safe transition to a low-carbon future, governments should see a polycentric approach as an imperative to act not a convenient cover for inaction.



Constructive advice in the development of this research was provided by participants at the INOGOV workshop on Pioneers and Leaders in Polycentric Climate Governance at the University of Hull, UK in Autumn 2016. The research upon which this blog is based has been funded by the ESRC’s Centre for Climate Change Economics & Policy.

[i] Gillard, R., 2016. Unravelling the United Kingdom’s climate policy consensus: The power of ideas, discourse and institutions. Global Environmental Change, 40, pp.26-36; Gillard, R., Gouldson, A., Paavola, J. and Van Alstine, J., 2017. Can national policy blockages accelerate the development of polycentric governance? Evidence from climate change policy in the United Kingdom. Global Environmental Change, 45, pp.174-182.


Photo: Flickr/FotoZi Studio

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