Non-State Climate Leadership Needs National Governments

By Johannes Urpelainen - 24 September 2018
Non-State Climate Leadership Needs National Governments

Johannes Urpelainen explores opportunities for non-state actors to work with national governments to influence climate policy.

Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit galvanized non-state climate action. California itself approved legislation to decarbonize its power sector, and Governor Brown even signed an executive order that aims for carbon neutrality across the state economy. While these activities are a major step forward, the effectiveness of non-state climate action ultimately depends on collaboration with national governments.

Only two weeks before the summit, a report written by a team of Yale University researchers explored the potential for non-state climate action. Led by Professor Angel Hsu, the team found that current commitments by non-state actors would only reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by two gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030. That is a trivial accomplishment, considering that in 2016 global emissions stood at 49 gigatons.

But if all initiatives announced by non-state actors were implemented in full, annual global emissions could decrease by over twenty gigatons, or one-third of projected global emissions by 2030. That would go a long way toward avoiding runaway climate change.

Important non-state initiatives depend on national policy

A review of the announcements,  however, shows that many of them depend on national governments. This leads to the conclusion that national governments must play a critical role in realizing the full potential of non-state climate action.

The most important initiative reviewed by the researchers is to end deforestation. This approach, enshrined in the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), would reduce global emissions by up to eight gigatons. However, the NYDF does not contain a concrete action plan to achieve the goal. It is but an aspiration, a goal without a compass or a roadmap.

The lack of strategy in NYDF is no surprise to students of global forest politics. Observing decades of efforts to stop deforestation, researchers have found that national governments jealously guard their sovereignty in the area. From Brazil to Indonesia and Malaysia, governments with authority over rainforests have consistently refused any foreign interference with their plans and policies. Deforestation has proven to be an intractable problem, and the world still does not have even a framework treaty for dealing with the issue.

Isolated successes in reducing deforestation have stemmed from national action. The best example is Brazil’s ability to contain runaway deforestation during President Lula’s tenure. The government achieved a 70 percent reduction in deforestation primarily by investing in monitoring and enforcement of rules.

Given the vast size of the Amazon, the sweeping program would not have been possible at lower levels of government. If a few progressive municipalities had led the charge, forest clearing would have shifted elsewhere. Even that scenario is optimistic, considering the fraught politics of deforestation in the Amazonian municipalities.

The same principle applies to several other non-state initiatives.  Another major effort is the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAF), which focuses on reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon and methane. The potential emission reduction here is four gigatons.

The emissions come from a wide range of activities, such as brick production and agriculture, that can only be regulated on scale by national governments. Agricultural crop burning, for example, produces one-third of black carbon and is widely used within and across countries. Recognizing the challenge, the initiative itself has multiple state partners. The national governments that formulate policies on behalf of these partners are the only authorities with the ability to stop agricultural crop burning across their territories.

Considering that these two activities alone drive one-half of the theoretical potential for non-state climate policy, the central role of national governments is clear. Non-state climate policy has played an important role in catalyzing action and avoiding the paralysis often seen in international climate negotiations, but without national governments it cannot solve the problem. The most important policy levers are controlled by national governments.

Savvy non-state actors should engage with national governments

Going forward, the climate movement should focus on developing strategies that allow non-state climate action to encourage national governments. Instead of treating non-state climate action as an alternative to national governments’ policies, non-state actors should develop strategies for changing national governments’ incentives. The real promise of non-state climate action lies with this kind of catalysis.

The 2015 Paris agreement on climate change offers an opportunity. Because it emphasizes national action and requires that governments announce their intended actions, it offers a mechanism for codifying tangible actions. If non-state actors can demonstrate that climate mitigation need not be costly or political unpopular, climate advocates can use these lessons to advocate climate mitigation to national governments. The international institution creates a framework for pragmatic cooperation on climate change, non-state actors develop and demonstrate new approaches, and national governments act to avoid runaway climate change.



Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP).

Image credit: Broad Sunlit Uplands via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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