Will international cooperative initiatives close the emission gap?

Oscar Widerberg and Philipp Pattberg, Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) at VU University Amsterdam.

A salient issue in the climate talks concerns the voluntary pledges made by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Currently, these pledges are not sufficient to reach the global goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. To bridge this crucial ambitions gap, practitioners and academics alike have started to look outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for promising initiatives. Today, cross-border climate governance increasingly engages non-state actors such as subnational authorities, including cities and regions, civil society organisations (CSOs), companies, international organisations and philanthropists. C40 for example, gathers roughly 70 of the world’s largest cities to share information, technical solutions and best-practices to address climate issues. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has seen over 5,000 organisations in 2014 disclose climate related data. Both of these initiatives are global in character and play important roles in curbing climate change, but are not government initiatives or strictly under the auspices of UNFCCC.

In UNFCCC jargon, these activities are termed “International Cooperative Initiatives” (ICIs) and also include smaller constellations of countries collaborating on climate issues. The UNFCCC Secretariat has produced technical reports on ICIs and set up an information gathering portal. In Lima, several side-events tend to the topic and in the negotiations – more specifically under the 2nd workstream under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) – ICIs have been discussed extensively.

Since ICIs are gaining momentum in the run-up to Paris 2015, we set out to assess their achievements to date. There is ample evidence for ICIs’ technical GHG mitigation potential but less proof on their actual performance. After analysing nine ICIs published on the UNFCCC portal, we uncovered a vast heterogeneity among the ICIs in terms of size, memberships, ambitions level, target-areas, access to information, inclusiveness and relation to other initiatives. However, a lack of visible progress makes it difficult to measure their actual performance in relation to their technical potential. The largest worry is that ICIs merely are announced under much pomp and circumstances but fail to deliver on their, often vaguely set, goals. We draw parallels to the limited success of a comparable policy process, namely the Partnerships for Sustainable Development, which were designed to become central vehicles of implementing global sustainable development goals after the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. Important lessons relevant for ICIs could be learned from this process.

To ensure that ICIs contribute to increasing national ambitions and bridge the ambition gap, we have five recommendations. First, ICIs should be encouraged to set quantifiable targets enabling an assessment of their achievements. Second, safe-guards are needed to ensure ‘additionality’ of ICIs to national pledges. Otherwise there is little chance for going beyond national ambitions. Third, transparency and disclosure are important to provide legitimacy and trust in the ICIs. Fourth, the UNFCCC Secretariat, or comparable initiative, should be given a mandate to monitor ICIs and report on non-activity. One proposal which we support has been put forward by a consortium of NGOs, institutes and academics, to create a Comprehensive Framework to support ICIs in various ways (Chan, S. and P. Pauw (2014) Proposal for a Global Framework for Climate Action to Engage Non-State and Subnational Stakeholders in the Future Climate Regime). Fifth, we need to improve our understanding of how and why the Partnerships for Sustainable Development largely failed and incorporate these lessons learned into the climate debate.

In sum, ICIs are necessary to global climate action and are doing fantastic work on a number of issues. However, to provide them a more formal role under the UNFCCC needs to come with a number of safe-guards to ensure that real action is taken.


Oscar Widerberg is a researcher with department for environmental policy analysis at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) at VU University Amsterdam.

Philipp Pattberg is an associate professor and deputy head of the department for environmental policy analysis at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) at VU University Amsterdam


UNFCCC Portal on cooperative initiatives: unfccc.int/focus/mitigation/items/7785.php
Widerberg, O. and P. Pattberg (2014, forthcoming) International Cooperative Initiatives in Global Climate Governance: Raising the Ambition Level or Delegitimizing the UNFCCC? Global Policy.