With countries aiming to negotiate a new global climate deal by the end of 2015, there are concerns as to whether such an agreement will be sufficiently ambitious to prevent dangerous global temperature rise. Such ambition hinges not only upon national government action at the international level, but at different scales as well, including sub-national, non-state, and private actors. Regarding the latter, there has been an emergence of activities on the part of states (e.g., California’s cap and trade program), cities (e.g., ICLEI and C-40), and businesses (e.g., Carbon Disclosure Project). In aggregate, these actions could be significant, although exactly what the impact is and how they relate to national and international commitments are major questions.

Given this context, 38 participants from civil society, academia, and government participated in a workshop, “Designing a global platform for climate actions,” held jointly by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Oxford University July 24-25. The premise of the meeting was to discuss design options for a platform to record, assess, and communicate the various actions of these sub and transnational actions for climate change as a first step to link these “bottom-up” actions with the larger international framework. There are a few existing efforts that attempt to develop registries of such actions, including NRDC’s Cloud of Commitments and the UN Global Compact. These online portals provide a space for actors to share their actions on climate change to add transparency to their efforts, but also to begin to understand, in aggregate, what these actions could mean.

What was discussed

Before diving into the details of what a “platform” (or registry, framework, clearinghouse) would entail, it was important for the group to decide on what exactly the purpose of an effort to record actions or commitments would be. What was decided is that a platform should:

  • Drive action toward a goal of a “safe climate and resilient development,” consistent with the UNFCCC, but potentially more ambitious;
  • Catalyzing actions, through supporting and scaling existing actions but also promoting new ones;
  • Aggregating and tracking actions;
  • Showcasing actions to build a positive, pragmatic narrative on climate change.

However, what exactly the nature and criteria for including an “action,” was a topic of debate. Without a common definition or standards for impactful climate actions, a platform could be diluted with generic statements (e.g., a pledge to take action on climate change) and others that are difficult to interpret or track (e.g., a net carbon goal without any specifics). Participants addressed this challenge as well and established the following scope for actions:

  • Networks and intiatives that link sub-non-state actors;
  • Action coalitions, partnerships, and other multistakeholder initiatives
  • Intergovernmental “clubs” that are multilateral in nature.

While there was discussion as to the content of recorded actions, there was debate surrounding the idea of actions needing to be “additional” to business-as-usual actions; whether a single actor’s efforts could be included (e.g., a large corporation); and what thresholds might be defined to determine “significant” action.

What was missing

From the perspective of the Environmental Performance Measurement Program at YCELP, how these sub-national and non-state actions can be meaningfully compared is a key question that was not discussed. Recording the number of actions or actors in a platform doesn’t help decisionmakers make sense of their impact or meaning.

For example, a forthcoming paper by Andonova et al. (see Figure 2) quantifies countries with the most sub and non-state actor participation in translation climate governance. Italy leads ahead of the United States, Spain and Austria, but does this mean that the contribution of non-state actors in Italy is greater than what’s being done in the U.S., Spain, or China, for that matter? Does an action by an individual industrial factory in Italy mean as much globally, than if Sinopec, one of the two largest oil and gas companies in China, decides to reduce its carbon emissions?

What we need is a common metric for understanding the contribution of efforts nationally and internationally. Such a common metric will then allow for comparisons, and perhaps incentivize competition and a “race to the top” in the way we’ve seen the EPI inspire action with its rankings. This is not to say that ranking is the way forward or is sensible, but what was missing from the conversation in Oxford was any clarity on measurement or comparison of the actions or commitments discussed.

While not perfect, the commonly accepted metric for climate change mitigation continues to be metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas with the most direct correlation with temperature rise. To get closer to establishing common standards and rules for accounting carbon, a group of organizations is working on standards for community-scale greenhouse gas emissions. These standards complement existing protocols for quantifying corporate and organizational emissions. While many of the registry efforts use these standards to make reporting consistent, a major concern echoed at the Oxford workshop was how to not make these reporting requirements too onerous.

Next steps

The good news is that the conversation that was started in Oxford is still ongoing. With significant organizations present with the power to influence other key actors at home, the ideas generated over the course of the workshop will hopefully be adopted or carried forward.

Another glimmer of hope is the number of high-profile climate events that are in the immediate future, where the discussion can continue. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon will host a high-level UN Climate Summit on Sept. 23 in New York City. The next round of climate negotiations is not too far off this November in Lima, Peru. While the larger pieces of the global agreement have been in the works since at least, the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, there may not be much additional bandwidth for new initiatives. However, there is still plenty of time to develop the necessary foundation for negotiations to consider how these important, and growing, sub-, trans- and non-state efforts, can help close the climate emissions gap.