Global Climate Governance in 2014 in Retrospect
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This update focuses in particular on activities by diverse actors outside the UNFCCC process, and how these actors are supporting collective and cooperative action on climate change.

From Each According to His Capability…

As the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) to the UNFCCC closed in mid-December 2014 in Lima, Peru, some returned to their homes feeling cautiously optimistic regarding the potential for a strong, ambitious outcome at the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015.

Despite slow progress, the Lima conference was conducted in an overall positive spirit, and some advances were made on the crucial and controversial issue of differentiation through recognition of the special needs of vulnerable States, and the compromise language on the differentiation of countries’ responsibilities,[1] both included in the key conference outcome, the Lima Call for Climate Action.[2] More pessimistic observers suggested that the UN climate negotiations are heading towards agreement on the lowest common denominator, namely that commitments by countries to action and support will be based on what each country subjectively determines as the maximum effort it can make, based on its national capabilities and circumstances, which most likely would not add up to staying below the 2°C target. Still, the Lima conference left a large amount of work for the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), which is expected to agree on a draft negotiating text at its meeting in February 2015, in Geneva, Switzerland.[3]

The COP is the main annual event of the UNFCCC (and, to a certain extent, of the entire climate policy community), and the high expectations that precede it often translate into post-meeting disappointment among a range of parties and stakeholders. Apart from the numerous decisions taken at this key forum of global climate governance that slowly but surely move the international climate regime forward, a number of promising developments took place in 2014 outside the UNFCCC that also merit attention and cautious optimism.

Explaining the dynamics of global efforts to tackle climate change through a top-down versus bottom-up dichotomy has become commonplace. In general, the former consists in (legally) binding rules, and even absolute caps, on States’ emissions under an international or regional regime, while the latter refers to voluntary actions by State or non-State actors, or among a smaller group of States. Disillusioned with the slow progress and lack of ambition under the UNFCCC, some have called for more emphasis on actions outside the Convention, and how these can accelerate and support climate action. To remedy the negotiation gridlock that stems, among other factors, from the consensus principle applied under the UNFCCC in the absence of agreement on voting rules, some have gone as far as to suggest the establishment of a “club,” assembling “countries that are willing to move faster than the rest.”[4]

While most agree that neither top-down or bottom-up approaches alone are enough to keep temperature rise below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels, a clear roadmap for how these two can work together in order to bring about action that is in line with science has yet to emerge. While the UN Paris Climate Change Conference in December 2015 is expected to provide some kind of an answer to the top-down side of the equation, making sense of developments outside the UNFCCC (the bottom-up) is becoming an increasingly complex exercise, pointing to the need for a collective, aggregate force to bring “everything” together in a meaningful way.

This policy update reviews the year 2014 through the eyes of IISD Reporting Services, whose work comprises daily feeds published by the knowledge management project ‘Climate Change Policy & Practice‘ on the climate change activities of UN and intergovernmental organizations, and coverage of international climate change negotiations and conferences through its Earth Negotiations Bulletin and other publications. This update focuses in particular on activities by diverse actors outside the UNFCCC process, and how these actors are supporting collective and cooperative action on climate change. It argues that, in order to stay relevant and fulfil its objective, from Paris onwards, the UNFCCC will need to reinvent itself to go beyond an exclusive focus on States. It is this broader scope – reviewed in this update – that will enable unlocking climate action beyond individual States’ capacities under an umbrella of international governance.

High-level Events

The key climate event of 2014 was undisputedly the UN Climate Summit, which was convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York in September. Representing an unprecedented level of participation by Heads of State and Government and other leaders from a diverse group of actors, the event resulted in numerous announcements of action by governments and companies, as well as multi-stakeholder initiatives and coalitions.[4] Among the key Summit outcomes was the New York Declaration on Forests, signed by 27 countries and dozens of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) aiming to halve the global rate of deforestation by 2020.[5] Also, in support of the Summit, 73 countries, 22 subnational entities, and more than 1,000 businesses and investors signed a Statement on Putting a Price on Carbon.[6] The preparatory high-level meeting of the UN Climate Summit, the Abu Dhabi Ascent, also attracted an impressive 1,000 participants from government and various stakeholder groups.[7]

At the beginning of 2014, the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which convened 2,500 global leaders from States, businesses, the UN system and civil society, featured the impacts of climate change among the topics discussed.[8] Climate change was also on the agendas of the EU-Africa Summit in April,[9] the G7 Summit in June,[10] the BRICS Summit in July,[11] the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September,[12] and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) North Atlantic Council Summit in September[13]. Even if not officially on the agenda, climate change was also included in final communiqué of the G20 Summit in November.[14]

International Organizations and Conferences

A number of key international organizations and government-led fora also had a busy year, driving and lending their support to major regional and global intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder initiatives. In the field of energy, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) launched the Africa Clean Energy Corridor and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Lighthouse initiatives, which will promote the deployment of renewable energy in Eastern and Southern Africa, and islands around the world, respectively.[15] The Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) held its fifth meeting in May,[16] and the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) convened three times during 2014.[17] [18]

In October, the EU announced a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction target of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, the first major emitter to come forward with a post-2020 mitigation commitment.[19]

At meetings of the Montreal Protocol (of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer) in July and November 2014, convergence remained elusive on parties’ views regarding whether, how and in which setting to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Protocol.[20] [21] HFCs, however, featured among the topics discussed in the Technical Expert Meetings (TEMs) under the UNFCCC, which bring together parties and experts from international organizations and partnerships to explore emissions reduction and related support options in the pre-2020 period.[22]

Numerous other multilateral and multi-stakeholder environmental conferences and meetings also connected with the international climate change agenda. The 12th meeting of the COP to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in October, addressed emissions from forests, ecosystem-based approaches to climate change, and biodiversity-related impacts of climate change.[23] In November, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s once-in-a-decade World Parks Congress concluded with a call to position protected areas as natural solutions to climate change.[24] The Third International Conference on SIDS, organized in September, in the framework of the International Year of SIDS,[25] featured climate change-related events, as well as collaborative and action announcements by participating countries and organizations.[26] Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted a conference on health and climate in August,[27] and during the 130th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), in March, parliamentarians from 140 countries adopted a resolution on risk-resilient development, which stresses the importance of an ambitious climate agreement with legal force.[28]

Climate change also featured as a cross-cutting theme and as one of the focus areas in the discussions of the UNGA Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[29] and in the Ministerial Outcome Document of the first session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) in June 2014.[30] The OWG’s proposal for SDGs ultimately included a proposed goal to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Multi-stakeholder Initiatives

A number of global initiatives bringing together stakeholders around specific issues related to climate change mitigation and adaptation were formalized or further developed in 2014. The Partnership on Low Carbon Sustainable Transport (SLoCaT), a partnership of over 80 organizations that promotes sustainable transport policy integration, was formalized through the incorporation of its Secretariat as an independent legal entity.[31] The Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, which aims to ensure universal energy access, a doubling of the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix, and a doubling of the rate of energy efficiency improvements globally by 2030, launched the UN Decade of SE4ALL (2014-2024) through various regional and global events,[32] and opened its Global Facilitation Office in Vienna in November 2014.[33] The Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE) International held a number of meetings, and launched the Partnership for Climate Legislation, which will share best practices and provide assistance in climate law development and implementation.[34]

The year was particularly productive for the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC), which has 93 partners from governments, international organizations and NGOs, and aims to accelerate rapid reductions in short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) to support staying below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. CCAC approved a new initiative on cities and organized its Working Group meeting in July,[35] and its fifth High-Level Assembly in September.[36] The CCAC’s Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, with support from major global companies, was also officially launched at the UN Climate Summit.[37]

The 1 Gigaton Coalition, launched by the Government of Norway and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) during COP 20 in December, aims to quantify the impact of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects to support their further uptake.[38] Another new initiative, the Medellín Collaboration on Urban Resilience, launched by the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) and eight partners at the Seventh World Urban Forum, in April, will support cities to build resilience to systemic shocks and stresses, such as climate change.[39] The UN Climate Summit also marked the launch of a number of multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the Compact of Mayors, described as the “largest effort to date by cities to fight climate change,”[40] and the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, targeting 500 million farmers globally.[41]

A number of global meetings and initiatives also sought to keep climate change on the agenda at multiple decision-making levels and across different economic sectors. These included the first World Summit of Regions for Climate,[42] the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group Mayors Summit,[43] the establishment by the European Commission of the Mayors Adapt initiative, aimed at building resilience of EU cities,[44] the inaugural meeting of the UN-led Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE),[45] and the 15th and 16th Rights and Resources Initiative Dialogues on Forests, Governance, and Climate Change,[46] among others.

The People’s Climate March, held during the UN Climate Summit week in New York, brought to the streets an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 participants, demonstrating the power of civil society and calling on global leaders to take urgent action on climate change while reminding them that “there is no planet B.”[47]

Finance Institutions and Developments

In the field of climate finance, the major events of the year were the Initial Resource Mobilization meetings and finalization of key decisions required to operationalize the Green Climate Fund (GCF), an operating entity of the UNFCCC that will support developing countries in low-carbon, climate-resilient development. With country pledges to the GCF (including from Peru and Colombia, both developing countries) totalling nearly US$10.2 billion in December 2014, the Fund is expected to begin considering proposals and committing funds in the first half of 2015.[48] [49]

In April, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) concluded its sixth replenishment for the period 2014-2018, totalling a record-high US$4.43 billion, of which US$1.26 billion are earmarked for the climate change focal area.[50] Together with the GEF’s dedicated adaptation funds, climate financing available through the Facility over the next four-year period will total US$3 billion.[51] Major multilateral development banks (MDBs) also pledged to further develop climate financing through strengthened institutional focus on the issue.[52]

The announcement of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) New Development Bank also constituted a significant development, with an initial subscribed capital of US$50 billion for financing infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging and developing economies.[53] Further indications of forthcoming South-South cooperation were received with an announcement by China, during COP 20, on the establishment of a South-South Cooperation Fund.[54]

In a major advance to the fast-growing global carbon and fossil fuel divestment movement, and a contribution to the UN Climate Summit, a group of major institutional investors and UNEP’s Finance Initiative (UNEP-FI) launched the Portfolio Decarbonization Coalition, which will aim to decarbonize at least US$100 billion of institutional equity investment by the Paris Climate Change Conference in December 2015.[55]

Bilateral Agreements

A number of key bilateral commitments to action were also made during 2014, most prominently the US-China joint announcement on climate change, in which the US pledged to reduce its net GHG emissions by 26-28% by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, and China committed to a peak in national GHG emissions and producing 20% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.[56] An agreement between State and subnational levels was also made with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by Mexico and the US state of California on enhancing cooperation on climate change, including GHG reporting, market-based mechanisms, renewable energy, forest carbon and SLCPs.[57]

… to Earth According to Its Needs?

Even after these numerous events and announcements in 2014, the question remains: will the existing and new pledges of action and forms of cooperation translate into sufficient levels of implementation to avoid dangerous climate change? Will these initiatives, plans and policies, established inside and outside the UNFCCC process, add up to sufficient financial and technical support to vulnerable countries suffering the adverse consequences of climate change? And will they translate into enough renewable and clean energy installations, and action on energy efficiency around the world to contribute to the “substantial and sustained emission reductions” required to stay within the 2°C limit, which will entail a near-term peak and reductions in GHG emissions of 40-70% relative to 2010 by 2050, as indicated by the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), finalized in 2014?[58]

Beyond initiatives specifically targeted at tackling climate change itself, the impact of external factors on the level of global climate action cannot be underestimated. With global oil prices at a record low at the start of the year 2015, the impacts on renewable energy deployment can only be speculated upon. While renewable electricity generation does not generally compete with oil, negative impacts could be felt by the electric vehicles industry and hybrid power generation in some developing countries. Optimistically perhaps, Bloomberg New Energy Finance has gone as far to suggest that the question to ask this year, and beyond, is “how the shift to clean energy is impacting the oil price.”[59] In either case, the level of uncertainty in terms of whether the global clean energy transition will come fast enough is still unacceptably high, owing to a lack of clear policy and regulatory signals.

The absence of strong and clear ‘top-down’ signals brings us back to the urgent question of how to find an optimal balance between the bottom up and the top down. Johan Rockström, father of the concept of planetary boundaries, has argued that there is no evidence, under any of the Rio Conventions, that a bottom-up approach will be enough, and that “bottom-up innovation” must be coupled with “top-down regulation” that establishes a cap on total global emissions. He has also argued that, while nation States will continue to exist as “the fundamental units for accounting and development,” “global governance, at an unprecedented scale” is required for solving key global environmental challenges, including climate change.[60]

While international top-down arrangements are undoubtedly crucial for keeping science in sight, it is obvious that in an global system of sovereign States, even a strong UN climate agreement would not be enough to ultimately enforce action by States – and would not be binding on non-State actors. Still, international institutions, such as the UNFCCC, will be needed to build trust, increase transparency, and provide a forum for collective ambition building at various levels. The major future task of the UNFCCC will arguably not only be to oversee the implementation of the future post-2020 climate agreement, but also to find a way to engage with the increasingly complex dynamism of climate action that crosses State boundaries, is increasingly carried out by non-State actors, and often is driven by related economic, health and other co-benefits.

With the UN Paris Climate Change Conference less than 10 months away, all the international climate community’s attention will undoubtedly be on the 2015 agreement. But what will happen after Paris? In the life of an organization, after all major events – be they crises or achievements – comes a moment of self-reflection and, ideally, reinvention. Climate change is a complex problem that knows no boundaries. The year 2014 clearly demonstrated that the same now applies to global climate action. After Paris, will it be time for the UNFCCC to look at how it can adjust to this reality while maintaining its crucial role as the leading international regime supporting climate action by all States and actors? This may be the only way to allow for States to go beyond their individual capabilities, to collectively meet the needs of all, both humans and the planet.

In 2015, the IISD Reporting Services will continue to keep track of, and report on, key events, projects and publications in the international climate policy and practice sphere. For an overview of upcoming meetings and other key events, visit our event calendar, and for our meeting coverage, the IISD Reporting Services website.


[1] Paragraph 3 of this decision underscores commitment to “reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.” This is verbatim the US-China joint announcement on climate change from 12 November 2014.

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