The importance of voluntary climate action catalysed by the COP process
International negotiations are a necessary but insufficient part of society’s response to climate change. Looking outside of the forum of COP climate conferences, Rob Macquarie and Eleonore Soubeyran review the vital contribution of voluntary initiatives.
Following the COP27 climate change conference, many have questioned whether international negotiations have got what it takes to deliver the level of environmental action required. The conclusion of the official negotiations left many dissatisfied. Simon Steill, the new head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), vowed afterwards to pursue a more ”streamlined” and ”effective” process that will ensure transparency and deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Some commentators have criticised COP for being bloated with greenwashing and proposed an alternative model focused on tackling concrete issues, without media attention. However, to assess the full picture of the state of the world’s response to climate change, it is important to also appreciate the range of voluntary initiatives that fall outside the formal international negotiations between governments that led to the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
A ‘whole of society’ approach to climate action
Initiatives announced during the sessions of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC take many forms, depending on their participants and mission:
- Public-only initiatives, carried out by states, subnational governments (e.g. cities), and international governmental organisations, including development finance institutions. Governments have formed ‘minilateral’ groups such as the Breakthrough Agenda or the new alliance on Tropical Forests for Climate and People to drive progress in specific sectors or regions.
- Public-private initiatives, through which firms, philanthropic organisations and other private actors collaborate with national governments. The Marrakech Partnership has led to the formation of many of these groups, including the Enhancing Nature-based Solutions for Climate Transformation (ENACT) initiative, the Accelerate to Zero Coalition and the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM4C).
- Private sector-focused initiatives, where signatories agree to align their business practices (including investments and procurement) with climate goals. Examples include the First Movers Coalition and Financial Sector Deforestation Action.
Collectively, these initiatives reflect the ‘whole of society’ transformation that is needed to deliver on international climate agreements. The UNFCCC and its Climate Champions, chiefly through their Race to Zero and Race to Resilience initiatives, have sought to create an ‘ambition loop’ among non-state actors, whereby action across multiple levels of society and in the private sector generates more ambitious government policy at national and international levels, and vice versa.
For voluntary initiatives to create the conditions for accelerated progress and positive tipping points, they should have three key features: urgency and breadth; quality (in terms of treatment of people and nature); and transparent measurement of targets and progress. These echo the criteria for high-integrity net zero commitments recently set out by the UN High Level Expert Group.
Urgency and breadth
First, action must be rapid and broad enough in its ambition. Many initiatives set a goal for 2030, recognising the importance of acting within this decade. However, even an eight-year window risks delaying action beyond decision-makers’ current time horizons. Near-term milestones and a roadmap showing how to reach the end goal are necessary to ensure rapid action. The Breakthrough Agenda represents a strong model, with an aspirational goal for 2030 twinned with an explicitly iterative approach, taking steps each year towards stronger measures. Another example is Mission Innovation’s recently released Zero-Emission Shipping Mission action plan, which details near-term milestones for 2022/24, 2024/27, and 2027/30, to deliver on its 2030 goal.
Roadmaps must include sufficiently broad actions to encompass all relevant climate drivers: failure to do so could slow or reverse progress. For instance, while the Agri-Commodity Sector Roadmap to 1.5°C includes a near-term milestone for 2025, it has been criticised for including deforestation but not land conversion, a major driver of the greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss caused by the sector.
A greater focus on adaptation and resilience is fundamentally important as the impacts of climate change accelerate. Several initiatives launched at COP27 demonstrate progress in protecting the most vulnerable communities against the adverse impacts of climate change, particularly in Africa, for example the Sharm-el Sheikh Adaptation Agenda, the Action on Water Adaptation and Resilience Initiative (AWARe) and the Africa Climate Risk Facility.
Second, voluntary initiatives should be of high quality, embedding social and wider environmental factors so that outcomes are durable and robust.
High-quality initiatives should encompass social factors to ensure that their actions are just – that is, fair and inclusive. This is important to address existing injustices and also gain consent for sustained and ambitious climate action. Without considerations of the social side, initiatives risk failing to reach marginalised groups that are most affected by climate impacts. Further, wider inclusivity can accelerate progress: a recent study by BCG estimates that closing the gender gap in the agricultural sector could reduce emissions by about 27.5 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent between 2020 and 2050.
Protecting low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by climate change and addressing financial inequality are an essential but largely overlooked element of voluntary initiatives. Roof Over our Heads is one example that incorporates such considerations, focusing on people living in informal settlements. Participation and leadership from the most marginalised and affected groups, such as women, Indigenous Peoples, local communities and young people, should also be ensured. The High-Quality Blue Carbon Principles include a specific focus on empowering marginalised groups but others fall short: some experts have raised alarm over AIM4C being dominated by agribusiness, leaving little room for local communities’ and farmers’ voices.
Beyond climate drivers, initiatives should cover other forms of environmental damage. The protection and restoration of natural ecosystems and biodiversity can provide important carbon sinks, protect communities against climate impacts and contribute to physical and psychological wellbeing. The Mangrove Adaptation Outcome, ENACT, Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership and Beat the Heat: Nature for Cool Cities Challenge all represent good examples of how initiatives can embrace nature-based solutions.
Third, initiatives should feature clear requirements to monitor progress and make data publicly available, to disclose transparently whether they are on track to meet their commitments.
Adopting clearly defined objectives and a timeline for achieving them is an essential first step to ensuring effective implementation and assessing progress. Several initiatives launched at COP27 – including ENACT, Initiative on Climate Action and Nutrition (I-CAN), and Resilience and Adaptation Mainstreaming Program (RAMP) – have published high-level guiding principles but no detailed delivery plans yet. The same principle should apply to commitments on social and environmental factors, which, if not linked to specific targets, will not have teeth. Guidance on how to embed these factors, like the Just Transition Finance Tool, can be particularly beneficial here.
Initiatives should commit to annual reporting on progress towards meeting their objectives, following examples set by the Breakthrough Agenda, the Indonesia Just Energy Transition Plan and Sustainable Urban Resilience for the next generation (SURGe). While most progress is self-reported, making independent assessments, as the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership has committed to, can guarantee that the data reported are accurate and reliable.
Considering the sheer variety of voluntary initiatives underway, coordination between them is necessary to avoid the risk that they are counterproductive to each other’s objectives. Differences in the indicators and methodologies used for monitoring, and a lack of aggregated data across initiatives, make this challenging. Shifting such a complex system will require multifaceted and multidimensional change. Coordinating efforts that create a kind of connective tissue between initiatives, referring explicitly to the work of others, are needed – such as how the Sharm-El-Sheikh Adaptation Agenda highlights initiatives in Africa that are advancing its global goals.
The role of COP
The COP climate conferences should have a continued role in shaping an overarching goal and framework, including mechanisms for political accountability, principles for action and signalling avenues for progress. It is the only space in which all countries and communities, including those most affected by climate change (such as Indigenous Peoples and youth) can truly have a voice. The UNFCCC must continue to break down barriers to equal and meaningful participation by these groups and to limit the influence of industry lobbying, while recognising that excluding firms could stymie progress through high-integrity voluntary commitments.
The COP process is necessary but insufficient for the world to succeed in tackling climate change. Real progress is most likely to come from momentum across the whole of society. However, high integrity is essential across all initiatives involved – otherwise, climate goals could be jeopardised.