The existing rules of engagement within the international climate framework – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – are proving inadequate for delivering the emissions reductions needed, and at the pace necessary, to meet recognized climate objectives.
The 2015 Paris Agreement established national adaptation and mitigation plans, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in which countries committed to decarbonize their economies over the coming decades. While procedural elements of this framework are legally binding, the crucial NDCs are voluntary.
Working within this essentially constrained rules-based order in climate policy, and given countries’ reluctance to date to translate targets into structural reforms, what can be done to uphold NDCs and raise future climate ambition? Part of the answer is to engage more actors and mobilize support more creatively.
Four measures in particular must be taken if the UNFCCC system is to meet the challenge of climate change.
1. Persuade countries to adopt more ambitious targets
The first is for countries to present more ambitious mitigation plans, so that deeper emissions cuts and climate-smart technologies can be initiated within achievable time frames. To increase action, the UN secretary-general has called for a climate summit in September 2019. Capitalizing on this opportunity, a small group of climate-smart developing and developed countries should convene to draft a resolution on increasing NDC ambition to levels consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Maintaining NDC ambition will require stronger monitoring of national commitments. The summit could therefore also be used to create an NDC tracking mechanism with an integrated, closed-door process of peer review between countries – not a rules-based system per se, but a step towards greater accountability.
Efforts to make NDCs more ambitious will also require subnational political support and sustained policy momentum from non-state actors. The Talanoa Dialogue, established in 2018, provides a platform for parties to the UNFCCC process (i.e. national governments) and non-parties alike to convene and discuss challenges.
Local governments, cities, businesses and NGOs – which often have practical experience of developing and implementing climate mitigation and adaptation measures – can showcase examples of low-carbon innovation and policy change, potentially encouraging national governments to commit to bolder action. There remains, however, a need for subnational governments and non-state actors to go beyond the sharing of experiences and best practice.
2. Elevate the role of local governments
The current arrangements for non-parties in the UNFCCC framework are set to expire in 2020. This provides an opportunity to shape the future framework: strengthening and elevating the positions of sub-state actors in both national and international processes will be key to increasing NDC ambition. One way to achieve this could be by defining their roles in the Global Stock Take within the Katowice ‘rulebook’, and by creating ‘national stocktake’ moments that formally include their policy actions in climate accounting.
A key rationale for empowering subnational governments is that they are more connected with people on the ground, see the effects of climate change more acutely, and are able to implement change more rapidly. For example, in Shenzhen, concerns over air pollution spurred the Chinese city to convert its 16,000 buses to electric power; plans are now under way to require the same of its 22,000 taxis.
Can such local initiatives be scaled up and coordinated internationally? Climate-focused international networks of sub-state bodies – such as the C40 group of cities and the Global Covenant of Majors for Climate and Energy – already exist. They now need to be given a more substantial and legitimate role in shaping global targets, via robust consultative processes that feed into national strategy and international ambition.
3. Involve business, finance and civil society
The third tactic will be to make the climate response architecture itself more robust. Non-state actors from business, finance and civil society could use the global climate policy networks that link them – such as the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, the Climate Action 100+, the Climate Action Network, etc. – to set up industry-specific charters on climate action, as has occurred within the fashion industry.
These groups have the collective power to make a global difference: businesses can promote climate-smart innovations within their supply chains; investors can align their portfolios around climate-related physical, transition and litigation risks; and civil society can help to establish system-wide key performance indicators across multiple sectors and geographies.
Elevating such activities within existing processes will require, in turn, a stronger accountability mechanism for climate commitments. Building on the growing capacity to track non-state action, UNFCCC parties and the UNFCCC secretariat should work to ensure that designated High-Level Champions are able to deliver on their mandate to expand climate action.
This will likely require increasing the use of formal and informal ‘friends of the Champions’ outside the UN system, and better integrating the work of the secretariat’s support unit with the broader climate action community.
4. Widen societal engagement
The three short-term strategies mentioned above, if successfully implemented, promise to improve the climate governance framework and create new pathways for greater ambition. However, the fact that NDCs are voluntary means that countries face few consequences for non-compliance with targets. In the long term, therefore, adherence to climate ‘rules’ – constrained as these currently are, in a formal sense – must ultimately come via a fourth way: sustained pressure by citizens on national governments.
In response to growing confidence in climate science, the risks of climate change are increasingly a major concern to the public. Recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that climate change is considered the top threat in 50 per cent of surveyed countries. Growing segments of society, perceiving inaction or insufficient action on the part of governments, are turning to awareness-raising and non-violent civil disobedience to raise the profile of climate issues.
Two recent examples in 2019 were the School Climate Strikes, in which more than 1.6 million schoolchildren in over 300 cities participated on a single day; and the Extinction Rebellion movement. In the latter case, in the UK the protesters’ demands were not only for the government to commit to extremely rapid emissions reductions (with net zero carbon by 2025), but for the establishment of a new national-level governance mechanism in the form of a people’s assembly.
A precedent for this sort of body already exists in Ireland, where a citizens’ assembly was launched in 2017. The assembly’s conclusions, published in 2018, showed 97 per cent of its members recommending that climate change be at the centre of policymaking in Ireland. 
Similar mechanisms, if enacted, in other countries could enable public frustration over climate action to be captured across jurisdictions, potentially translating into a stronger evidence base for more ambitious national strategies.
What needs to happen
- National governments need to commit to more ambitious mitigation and adaptation targets, within shorter time frames.
- To help achieve this, the 2019 UN climate summit could establish a tracking mechanism for national climate commitments with a closed-door process of peer review between countries.
- Ultimately, countries cannot be forced to cut emissions and raise targets – but increasing pressure could help, meaning the UNFCCC process needs to do more to leverage local government, business, finance and civil society.
- Countries could undertake bottom-up assessments to include local authorities in revising climate targets, given such entities’ on-the-ground practical knowledge.
- Businesses could be encouraged to set up industry-specific charters on climate action (e.g. as seen in the fashion industry). This can help to promote climate-smart innovation.
- Government ambition needs to reflect growing public concern over climate change and enable greater citizen engagement.
 Galvanizing the Groundswell of Climate Actions (GGCA) (2019), Summary of responses to consultation on the future of Global Climate Action in the UNFCCC, http://www.climategroundswell.org/blog-test/2019/3/21/summary-of-respon…
 Keegan, M. (2018), ‘Shenzhen’s silent revolution: world’s first fully electric bus fleet quietens Chinese megacity’, Guardian, 12 December 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/dec/12/silence-shenzhen-world-f….
 UNFCCC (2018), ‘Milestone Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action launched’, press release, 10 December 2018, https://unfccc.int/news/milestone-fashion-industry-charter-for-climate-….
 GGCA (2019), Summary of responses to consultation.
 Fagan, M. and Huang, C. (2019), ‘For Earth Day, a look at how people around the world view climate change’, Pew Research Center, 18 April 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/for-earth-day-a-look-a….
 350.org (2019), ‘Update 1.6 million students across the globe demand climate action’, 15 March 2019, https://350.org/press-release/1-4-million-students-across-the-globe-dem….
 The Citizens’ Assembly (undated), ‘How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’, https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/How-the-State-can-make-Ireland-a-lea….
 The Citizens’ Assembly (undated), ‘Establishment of the Assembly’, https://www.citizensassembly.ie/en/About-the-Citizens-Assembly/Backgrou….
 The legislation around citizens’ assemblies in Ireland requires that the Houses of the Oireachtas respond to each recommendation of an assembly and, if accepting the recommendation, indicate the time frame it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.
This essay was produced for the 2019 edition of Chatham House Expert Perspectives – our annual survey of risks and opportunities in global affairs – in which our researchers identify areas where the current sets of rules, institutions and mechanisms for peaceful international cooperation are falling short, and present ideas for reform and modernization.