Is the Global Climate Governance System Working?

Delegates negotiate at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, UK, November 13, 2021. (Christoph Soeder/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Global leaders from almost 200 countries reached a late agreement at the Glasgow climate talks that purports to keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees alive, but leaves much to be done in the coming years. The United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) closed remaining gaps from the Paris Agreement: the so-called Paris Rulebook was finalized and some areas of the Agreement’s key pillars—mitigation, adaptation, and means of implementation—saw limited advancements. The political agreement also included mention of loss and damage for the first time. However, language on phasing out fossil fuels, which should have been groundbreaking, was weakened to “the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” to account for the concerns of some developing countries, developed countries failed to live up to their Paris pledges around financing, and the agreed commitments still leave the world on track for 2.4 degrees of warming.

In the wake of the talks, there is a need to examine the current structures and dynamics of global climate governance. The Paris Agreement, along with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, still provides a solid universal framework. Yet the climate governance landscape—a large group of structures, institutions, states, and non-state actors working in different ways and at different levels (local, national, regional, and global—is not succeeding in implementation. The current ad hoc initiatives and practices—often based on loose “coalitions of the willing”—have weak or no accountability mechanisms, and their impact remains technical at best and superficial at worst. Can the climate governance landscape itself be reformed to increase ambition and incentivize real progress? 

National and Regional Perceptions

Climate change continues to be viewed primarily as a challenge for the future and, for many leaders, it is solely an environmental issue rather than a challenge that encompasses all areas of life. Fortunately, this perception is beginning to see rapid change. Scientists have made clear that the climate emergency is now, and increasing urgency among experts and activists is having a positive impact on policy.

National governments are also starting to change their structures to better address climate change. Many have moved away from delegating climate to only environment ministries—countries that still do are more likely to have weak or even contradictory policies—some countries have established climate councils composed of renowned experts to inform government approaches, and cabinets and heads of state and government are increasingly becoming directly involved in climate policymaking.

However, high-level leadership is not a panacea, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been a major global disruptor to climate action. Countries are struggling even more with the tension over what to prioritize: the economy or ecology, the short term or the long term. Even in countries with governance structures aligned around climate, such as Norway, the pandemic has triggered a reversal to non-environmentally friendly models of growth, including stimulus packages with subsidies and bailouts for the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, national-level political swings can dramatically change climate ambition, as has occurred in the United States (US), Brazil, Mexico, and Australia. If climate action becomes a higher priority for the majority of people and domestic constituencies see its benefits, it will become harder for political leaders to drastically change climate policies.

There are many countries and blocs leading the way on climate action, notably the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC), and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), whose members are facing the most immediate existential risks from climate change. AOSIS has at times coalesced with the Least Developed Countries Group on Climate Change (LDC Climate Change). Greater connections and alliances between AOSIS and the LDC Group could increase pressure on developed and emerging economies.

The return of a US administration committed to climate action and greater ambition from the European Union present an opportunity that cannot be missed. The Biden administration is helping to advance multilateral dialogue on climate change and, in the national context, is promoting a “whole of government approach” by including climate as a priority in all government departments. The European Union has also increased its commitments under the Paris Agreement, and importantly, has proposed its first European Climate Law, which would enshrine its long-term roadmap for climate neutrality into law. This offers an example of how climate action can be protected from electoral cycles, which would give climate policy some degree of stability domestically, building trust among countries.

The Design of the Climate Governance Landscape

Distorted perceptions of the climate crisis also persist at the global level and climate forums do not always attract the required levels of urgency or multi-sectoral leadership. While there are currently a multitude of multilateral climate initiatives—some specialized, focusing on issues like solar energy, others more general, serving as platforms for knowledge exchange—it is difficult to track and assess their impact. In fact, after every COP, several new climate alliances are formed, with few showing practical results.

Most decisions made at the global level are not mandatory and the implementation relies on good faith. Multilateral institutions are also often slow to act, jeopardizing the fast, ambitious, and concerted action required to address climate change. Diplomats and international civil servants tend to work in silos, whereas the climate crisis needs a cross-cutting approach that connects specific social, environmental, and economic efforts. The “climate bubble” only includes other issues, sectors, and actors on an ad hoc basis—even those closely related to the climate crisis such as energy, biodiversity, sustainable development, and food security.

On paper, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognizes non-state actors as important partners in implementing the agreement. But in reality, global decision-making processes continue to take place behind closed doors and youth, scientists, and committed business leaders have difficulty accessing these spaces and influencing outcomes. These dynamics are beginning to change. The UN secretary-general is helping to open climate forums to youth, civil society, and other key stakeholders through his Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. The multi-actor Climate Ambition Alliance also offers a new model for more inclusive climate governance. Such efforts need to be more systematized and the great distance from youth and activists in the streets to the climate negotiation rooms needs to be bridged by creating new and creative policy spaces, where youth, indigenous people, and other marginalized groups can have a greater say.

Yet, few dare to propose reforming the only universal climate negotiation forum, the UNFCCC.  Although there is an abundance of initiatives, few focus on supporting delivery, capacity building, and providing funding to developing countries. There is also very little coordination among initiatives, some appear to duplicate efforts, and most lack the accountability mechanisms needed to assess if they are truly being implemented on the ground. The UNFCCC has made progress in opening up to ministries in other sectors, however its complexity and rule of consensus can stall progress. More importantly, some of the biggest issues that will pave the way for a decarbonized world are not discussed nor decided in the UNFCCC, such as trade regimes and the overall alignment of global financial markets to climate goals.

As the only universal platform on climate, the UNFCCC needs to be protected and valued, but some change appears necessary for it to become a more dynamic global platform. The secretary-general should start a consultation process on potential reforms. However, the current dynamics of the UNFCCC are unlikely to change unless other processes within UN headquarters also become more open and inclusive—the process for negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals could serve as a model.

Even if the climate governance system evolves to become more inclusive, dynamic, and aligned, the question remains whether this would be enough to generate the level of ambition needed to keep global warming to the 1.5-degree goal. Most likely it would not, but if the climate finance system were to evolve as well, then the combination of advances could accelerate progress in ways that currently seem impossible.

Climate Finance

Climate finance is a cornerstone of climate discussions and is critical to building momentum and generating trust between developed and developing countries. Under the Paris Agreement, developed countries committed to taking the lead in providing financial assistance to climate-vulnerable countries.

The quality of funding also requires attention. Climate-vulnerable countries often lack direct access to funding and face burdensome requirements to apply for and receive funding that direct time and resources away from implementation and create negative cycles of dependency. Many developed countries channel their funding through bilateral channels, employing their nationals and external consultants to work in developing countries rather than building the institutional capacity of the recipient country. Additionally, while multilateral funds such as the Green Climate Fund are intended to provide direct access to funding for homegrown organizations in developing countries, only two of fifteen new projects do so.

Many African countries such as Nigeria have strong nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and are eager to act, but have little capacity and expertise to put the climate agenda into action. International climate finance and civil society organizations could provide mentorship and foster networking to promote coordination on climate action among ministries at the national level to instigate action in subnational states and local communities.

While COP26 saw many countries increase their climate financing pledges, the Paris Agreement target for developing countries to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 continues to not be met. The target is already more a gesture of good faith than a figure that meets the needs of climate-vulnerable countries, and continued failure to provide early and adequate financing could set the stage for adaptation costs as high as $500 billion a year by 2030 if mitigation efforts are neglected.

Climate-vulnerable countries need supportive financing mechanisms that bolster their capacity to take climate action. Crucially, without changing the dynamics of the financing cycle, any promises that are made may have little impact on the ground.

Accelerating Climate Action

Although progress has been made since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the lion’s share of the key actions needed to tackle climate change and avoid catastrophic global warming have yet to be taken. Accelerating and implementing meaningful climate action will require a shift in the current fragmented global climate governance landscape. The achievements of COP26 will depend on whether it can be used as a springboard for much greater progress in the very near term.

This article, based on a report first published by the Global Challenges Foundation, is part of a series reflecting on global climate action in the wake of COP26.

Jimena Leiva Roesch is Senior Fellow and Head of Peace and Sustainable Development at the International Peace Institute. Julia Almeida Nobre is an international lawyer and a consultant for the International Peace Institute. Eimer Curtin is Assistant Editor (consultant), the Global Observatory.