Oscar Widerberg (Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University Amsterdam)

Cross-border climate action has become much more than the negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A “Cambrian explosion”[1] in global climate governance is underway comprising hundreds of new climate initiatives that have emerged, comprising cities, regions, companies and states. For instance, the C40 network engaging over 70 mega-cities sharing experiences and commitments; the R20 connecting regions and private investors for sustainable energy solutions; or the WWF’s Climate Savers programme involving 28 global companies in climate action.

Researchers, international organisations and think tanks have scrambled to make sense of this expanding universe of innovations in global climate governance. A first step has been to create repositories of information to answer questions such as how many new initiatives are there, who is driving the process, and what are they doing? One prominent example is the recently launched Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action database ( http://climateaction.unfccc.int/) which is run by the UNFCCC secretariat with the support of non-state data providers such as the CDP and Carbonn.

However, do these new assemblies of data allow us to better evaluate the structure, causes and impacts of new climate governance initiatives? Who actually decides on what is included and what is excluded? Are different projects supporting each other, or is there overlap and competing claims on how global climate governance is structured?

During my INOGOV funded visiting fellowship (known as a Short Term Scientific Mission) to the political science department at Lund University in southern Sweden, I worked together with associate professor Johannes Stripple, studying the content of six databases containing data on new climate initiatives. The databases are different in terms of background, purpose and scope, but share three commonalities. Firstly, they focus on carbon mitigation initiatives created by public or private actors, secondly the initiatives identified are largely outside the auspices of the UNFCCC, and finally they focus on international and/or transnational initiatives.

The study first describes the background and purpose of each database. Then their content is mapped across three categories: organizational characteristics (e.g. function, thematic area and participants), ex-ante impacts and activities (e.g. goals and objectives, geographic coverage), and ex-post impacts and activities (e.g. progress reports and quantified emissions reductions). From this exercise, we can conclude that there is data available to support the claim that the number of new climate initiatives have increased substantially over the past 10 years and that they are highly diverse in terms of type, actor-constellations, and modes of governance.

The data available could provide some insights into the ex-ante expected impacts and activities of the initiative. However, there is very little data available to support ex-post evaluation of direct and indirect impacts on climate mitigation. We argue that gathering such ex-post data poses a great challenge and important task for the coming years since the risk of green washing practices – where companies, cities and other organisations enjoy the good-will of making climate commitments while not actually changing behaviour – is large.

Despite the lack of data on impacts, there have recently been several studies assessing the effects of new climate initiatives both qualitatively and quantitatively based on their organizational characteristics and the commitments made. For instance, both Yale University and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) carried out studies estimating the potential mitigation reductions from sub-national non-state climate actions. Results are often widely diverging. Based on an analysis of the assessments, we suggest that the lack of a common definition and scope on what counts as a climate initiative hinders robust and comparable analyses to be made. We also note the political economy of databases, i.e. that they are set up as tools for political purposes and should be understood as such, which emphasise the need for studies to look at the political aspects of new climate initiatives including legitimacy and accountability. These issues are often dealt with in qualitative studies highlighting the need to marry them with quantitative approaches to provide a more complete picture.

In the conclusions, we make three recommendations for both researchers and practitioners. First, there must be criteria for being included/excluded from the databases – otherwise the risk of green-washing is too large. Second, gathering ex-post data via monitoring and reporting must be enhanced with a broad understanding of effectiveness going beyond carbon mitigation to also include other co-benefits such as fostering of dialogue, knowledge exchange and standard setting. Third, there is a great methodological challenge in developing new methods and approaches to better understand the impacts and effectiveness of new climate initiatives.

This blog is a summary of an article submitted to WIREs climate change.


Keohane and Victor (2011) The regime complex for climate change. Perspective on politics. March 2011, 9:1

Photo credit: Martin Heigan/Flickr

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