The Role of Sub-state and Nonstate Actors in International Climate Processes

Originally published by Chatham House, December 2018

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Climate action from sub-state and non-state actors such as subnational governments, cities, corporations and NGOs has very significant potential to enhance national efforts to curb CO2 emissions, close the so-called ‘emissions gap’ – between current commitments and the action necessary to meet climate targets – and help move the world on to a ‘1.5°C pathway’ that would limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

In addition to their own climate action, sub-state/non-state actors can contribute to climate governance by developing new policies and business models to support emissions cuts and build resilience. Knowledge exchange and capacity-building have a role to play in helping these innovations to spread internationally.

Politically, measures implemented by sub-state/non-state actors can help national governments to implement existing targets faster and more effectively, while helping to build political support for more ambitious climate action.

The post-Paris climate regime of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reflects the growing importance of sub- and non-state actors, and has featured the creation of institutional structures to engage and coordinate them.

In the current international political environment of rising populism, the role of sub- and nonstate actors may become more important than ever. However, more questions about the robustness of sub- and non-state action are also likely to be raised.

With the 2020 deadline approaching for countries to submit details of enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), long-term climate strategies and other means of raising policy ambition, the next two years are set to provide significant opportunity for sub- and nonstate action. Many governments are already developing ways to engage with sub- and non-state actors to identify opportunities to strengthen action by 2020.

Key questions in this respect include (a) whether sub- and non-state actors can mobilize across sectors; and (b) whether action can be extended beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to include contributions from less familiar sources, such as business sectors with limited opportunities for climate action or corporations in the Global South.