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The UNFCCC and Beyond: Transnational Climate Change Governance

The world’s attention (or at least that bit of it thinking about climate change at all) is focused again on the annual UN negotiations that convene for two weeks every December. This year in Lima, increasing attention is being given to a huge array of initiatives that work outside, or alongside, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Academic research has recently started to focus intensively on this phenomenon, now most commonly captured in the term ‘transnational climate change governance’ (TCCG).

In the recent book of the same title, Harriet Bulkeley and nine colleagues (including myself) provide what is to date the most comprehensive analysis of this phenomenon. The book is based on a database of 60 such initiatives, developed by the research team, which enables an analysis more systematic than that possible by focusing only on individual cases or small clusters of them. Our sole criterion for inclusion was a negative one of excluding governance initiatives explicitly developed as part of the UN negotiation process or national climate change policy.

My colleagues and I don’t come to any definitive conclusions, but suggest that an initiative’s effectiveness can be understood in terms of how it contributes to the building of an overall governance system.

The book reveals is an enormously diverse and dynamic, and often at the same time highly problematic, set of phenomena. TCCG initiatives cover a huge range of types. They include networks of cities collaborating and competing across the globe to shift to a low carbon economy; certification schemes developed by environmental NGOs and business groups to provide rules about what constitutes good (and bad) carbon offset projects; partnerships between small groups of governments and large corporations aiming to develop and deploy specific technologies such as renewable energy; groups of institutional investors asking the companies they invest in to disclose their carbon emissions and other climate-related risks with a view to affecting investor and manager behaviour; business networks seeking to transform corporate behaviour; and critical NGOs seeking to contest the dominance of markets and corporations in ways of dealing with climate change.

The book also shows how the TCCG initiatives vary along a range of different dimensions: forms of governance, types of actors involved, differential geographical scope (and the North-South politics thus involved), and types of legitimation strategies engaged in.

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Across the space of TCCG, using a cluster analysis of our database focussed on issues of energy, carbon markets, infrastructure and forests, we identify four ways which climate change governance is being constructed:

  • A ‘market dominant’ cluster: These 14 initiatives are involved principally in constructing and governing carbon markets. Some work specifically on energy and forests also, but none of them work in the area of building low-carbon infrastructure.
  • A ‘subnational dominant’ cluster: This cluster of 12 initiatives is dominated by local or subnational initiatives. They all work on infrastructure and almost all work on energy; but none work on forests and only a handful are involved in carbon markets.
  • An ‘all-purpose’ cluster: These 18 initiatives work in all four issue areas, and thus seek to coordinate climate change action across a range of issues.
  • An ‘energy or development’ cluster: These 16 initiatives work either on energy or on development in developing countries, but never on the other three issues (markets, infrastructure, forests).

This clustering of initiatives is useful in showing that different sorts of actors (or more precisely coalitions of actors) conceptualize climate change differently and thus seek to govern it in specific ways. Even when a specific issue is governed by more than one cluster – forests for example – it is understood and framed as a different type of problem to be solved. For some, governing climate involves the creation of new sorts of markets that need regulatory rules. For others, it is about shaping investment paths into new types of infrastructure. And for still others, it is something else entirely.

A big question, as yet unresolved, is what all this adds up to. Specifically, is this explosion of activity just, in Macbeth’s words “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Critics of these transnational climate change initiatives often point to doubts about their effectiveness. Of course, the same charge may be leveled at the UNFCCC or national governments. No type of climate change governance can really be said yet to be effective; if it were, the global economy would be on a path to decarbonization, we would have clear and just rules to deal with climate refugees, and so on.


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The more subtle but important problem in evaluating TCCG is that of measurement. Following Weber’s classic definition of the state, national governments govern a specific territory—and hence measuring the emissions they formally govern is (in principle at least) relatively straightforward. (That is, compared to, say, a carbon offset certification system or an investor-led carbon disclosure system). How then to measure whether TCCG initiatives are any good or not?

My colleagues and I don’t come to any definitive conclusions, but suggest that an initiative’s effectiveness can be understood in terms of how it contributes to the building of an overall governance system (alongside the UNFCCC and other UN climate-related activities). Effectiveness may arise as much out of interactions across this ‘global climate governance complex’ as out of any individual initiative; and it may take the form of building capacities to address climate change.

TCCG is unlikely to go away. Many of these initiatives are now deeply entrenched. The question is how they will evolve and how other sorts of climate change governance can seek to take advantage of their energy, especially as UNFCCC negotiations continue working at a glacial pace.

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