There were promising developments at COP26, both within and outside the negotiations. But it remains clear that most high-emitting countries are not demonstrating the political commitment to meeting 2030 mitigation targets necessary for keeping 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) alive.
This has created what some are calling a “credibility gap” because despite mid-century net-zero targets that cover 90% of global emissions, the policies countries currently have in place are projected to lead to 2.7 degrees C warming by the end of the century.
In other words, you say you’re going to be at your friend’s birthday party across town in 15 minutes, but you haven’t even dressed yet.
The conditions needed to deliver that credibility calls for domestic coalitions that can shift political incentives to overcome obstructionist actors. And rules and structures also need to be put in place to ensure participation and accountability from policymaking to implementation.
Of course, national contexts matter and every country is facing its own mix of climate risks and vulnerabilities, mitigation options, political actors and constituencies that may or may not be well organized for or against different climate policies. On the governance side, some countries may still be enacting laws and establishing coordination structures while others are grappling with building the capacity to implement new rules and incentivizing cooperation across government and with non-state actors. The credibility of countries’ plans and targets depends as much on the actions they’re taking to strengthen institutions for implementation as the actions that energize constituencies to ramp up future ambition.
To help policymakers, advocates and their international partners better target those efforts, WRI has developed a guide and assessment tool to support climate advocates as they unpack the political economy of climate governance — the structures, rules, norms, interests, groups and allegiances at the country level to identify entry points to focus their advocacy, capacity building, and coalition building. Making climate governance more transparent, inclusive and accountable domestically is likely to build positive momentum in international negotiations, especially considering the next major moment is the the Global Stocktake in 2023 — where collective progress towards meeting the Paris Agreement goals will be assessed. Independent experts have outlined the important role that civil society should play in that process.
Good practices on how governance reform and political economy approaches can spur more effective action can be found across climate policy arenas — for adaptation and mitigation and in a range of country contexts.
Strong Institutions Help Civil Society Hold Governments and Industry Accountable
Governments can build trust and support accountability by promoting independent oversight and encouraging civil society to challenge inaction.
There is growing use of litigation by civil society to challenge inadequate government action on climate change as well as companies and the financial sector. In Ireland for example, civil society groups saw a lack of action on climate mitigation despite the country committing to increased ambition in 2015. Through advocacy efforts, these groups were able to successfully challenge the government in court. The Irish supreme court ruled that the government had not set sufficiently ambitious mitigation targets to comply with its Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act. It resulted in a more ambitious mitigation target in the amended 2021 version of the Act.
This advocacy and the resulting pressure on global leaders enables citizens to hold their governments accountable and push for necessary changes at a more rapid pace. To support efforts like this, WRI’s political economy tool can be used by climate campaign leaders, policymakers and even implementing authorities — all of whom can tailor it to a specific challenge they have identified.
The tool can be used to address poor coordination across government agencies, a lack of accountability to the public, or political capture of enforcing agencies by vested interests.
It also allows users to review past examples of policy changes, arming advocates with revised strategies that put pressure on policymakers and create positive outcomes. This approach of looking back in order to move forward has been successful in a wide range of policy domains. For instance, a political economy analysis of Lebanon’s electricity sector revealed how corruption and mismanagement led to a network of illegal private diesel generators that have managed to survive and delay utility-scale solar through political patronage.
Political Context is Essential for Climate Advocacy Efforts
Tackling big challenges like climate change with a political economy approach provides advocates and stakeholders with critical socio-economic and political context. This context can help predict how climate policies could be received by the public, how they might be supported — or how they might be opposed. The value of having this context when crafting policy, strengthening governance, and identifying sources of social inequality cannot be overstated.
Here are three key points climate advocates and policymakers should keep in mind when using this political economy approach:
1) Emphasize Co-benefits
One major challenge of the political economy approach to climate action is the distribution of costs and benefits. Reducing these harmful emissions lead to benefits dispersed across society. Unfortunately, these benefits will not always be felt during an election cycle and require global collective action to be fully realized. This means it can be difficult to get political support for emissions reduction policies — especially when carbon-intensive industries could benefit from any delay in mitigation efforts and often enjoy privileged access to politicians.
In practical terms, to expand political support for these measures stakeholders need to rapidly and visibly showcase how considering climate policies can generate co-benefits like reduced air pollution, jobs and cleaner and safer infrastructure. In the United States a recent study found that bundling climate policy in with other bills that strengthened the social-economic safety net — such as New York’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — resulted in greater public support.
2) Understand Power Struggles
Even if all the stars align and a climate policy is likely to receive high-level political support, things can fall apart if there is perceived competition for budgetary resources and decision-making power between public authorities, like government officials and the media. Policies that should be obvious wins, such as low carbon development plans, can be shot down if there is a discrepancy in how the government mandates the shift, how the media covers the change, and how people perceive it.
A political economy analysis helps explain power struggles that often underlie such challenges. Advocates can learn from the (obstructed) transition to clean energy in Vietnam. Analysis suggests the block to the transition was due to artificially low coal prices, political unwillingness to increase energy costs, and a regulatory and investment environment that is biased towards existing energy sources.
While so far environmental advocacy has not been influential on Vietnam’s energy sector, the study suggests that amplified public pressure, elimination of international finance for coal power, and the continuing trend of declining clean energy prices could give just enough political economic pressure to open up a window of opportunity for reforming the sector.
3) Strengthen Inclusion and Equity
Social marginalization and exclusion contribute directly to climate vulnerability and injustice, such as when elites or socially privileged groups dominate decision-making spaces or policies don’t prioritize the needs of more vulnerable communities.
The coalition supporting the Principles for Locally-Led Adaptation recognizes the importance of addressing these disparities. A political economy analysis helps identify the sources of this power, how they are exercised, and, hopefully, avenues for challenging or mitigating their influence. This is important because inequalities persist even when people are equal under the law.
For example, a study of climate change adaptation policy in Nepal found that the failure to fully address power dynamics enabled local elites to capture project benefits and further exclude marginalized households, despite social inclusion being part of the policy goal. This information can draw attention to exclusionary practices, as well as inform campaigns to strengthen the representation and empowerment of excluded groups in decision-making and implementation of climate policies.
Helping Ensure Future Policies Benefit All
In the coming years, increasing climate action ambition while demonstrating effective implementation will be essential to creating sustainable and equitable societies.
This can’t be done without climate champions, advocates and local stakeholders coming together to create better political coalitions and strengthen governance structures.
These coalitions and structures are what ensure governments are being held accountable and can deliver on their ambition. Leveraging a political economy approach, using tools like this one, and better understanding past political economy successes and failures can help ensure future policies benefit all people and reduce the dangerous effects of a warming climate.