Many of us who were present during the final hours of the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris (COP21) will surely be surprised to realize it will soon be eight years since the world adopted the historic Paris Agreement on climate change. At the time, the spirit of cooperation was strong, including by national governments and non-state organizations across all geographies. After all, an international agreement on climate change — one with clear commitments to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) — was completely unprecedented.

Today, however, that commitment to cooperation seems strained. The world faces a series of unprecedented crises including rising inflation and debt from a global pandemic; a conflict in Europe with global consequences, along with conflicts in Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere; and a landscape of increasingly polarized global and domestic politics, hampering countries’ ability to pursue aligned multilateral action. Indeed, somcommentators have noted that the broad principles of multilateralism that made the Paris Agreement possible in 2015 are now being undermined by big players pulling in their own directions.

Because of its global nature and inherent complexity, addressing climate change hinges on the ability of countries to come together to find solutions at the required scale. Cooperation is key determinant of the effectiveness of environmental treaties. So, the question is: Should the UN’s Paris Agreement continue to be the center of gravity for countries to collectively tackle the climate crisis?


We believe that while the Paris Agreement should remain the world’s guiding North Star for international climate action, it needs to be supported by additional intergovernmental climate initiatives. While many such initiatives have emerged in recent years, they are not yet bold enough or inclusive enough to achieve the Paris Agreement’s ambitious goals.

Here, we outline what kinds of intergovernmental climate action the world needs to keep the Paris Agreement’s targets in reach.

The UNFCCC Alone Cannot Deliver the Goals of the Paris Agreement

Since its inception in 1992, the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has served as the global anchor for climate policy, including as the main mobilizer of climate action in general and of capacity-building for developing countries.  More recently, its 2015 Paris Agreement committed all governments to, among other goals, collectively reduce emissions enough to limit global temperature rise well below 2 degrees C (and aiming for 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F)) above pre-industrial levels, a target scientists say is necessary for averting some of the worst effects of climate change.

However, despite considerable progress and all countries submitting national climate action plans under the Paris Agreement, the world is on track for a 2.8 degrees C increase in global average temperature by the end of the century. Emissions are still rising; fossil fuels are still raking in record-breaking profits, countries’ finance commitments are still delinquent; and adaptation support is lagging woefully behind.

Simply put, the Paris Agreement isn’t leading to enough action to meet its goals. But it’s also unrealistic to expect the Paris Agreement to singlehandedly foster international climate action at the pace and scale necessary. The literature cites a long list of inherent features which limit the UNFCCC’s ability to mobilize action, including its scope and breadth; its need for consensus, which grants veto power to any of its 198 Parties; asymmetries of power and capacity, which divides and even polarizes Parties along lines of national or group interests; and uncertainty concerning expected actions and their costs, which disincentivizes the drive to implement policies.

The UNFCCC was also never meant to direct — much less implement or regulate — specific policies and measures for key sectors. Furthermore, as an international treaty, the UNFCCC’s instruments and bodies do not create, in any concrete sense, an actor or a space with the capacity and mandate to engage in implementation activities and policies that governments and other actors on the ground themselves pursue.

What the UNFCCC has done is secure the fundamentals of climate action: first, the recognition that climate change is an issue of global concern, and second, that all governments must join efforts to reduce emissions and deal with the impacts of a warming planet. More importantly, with the Paris Agreement, nations have agreed to limit the rise in global temperature to far below 2 degrees C, while continuing to pursue attempts to contain the rise to 1.5 degrees C and achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

The UNFCCC’s implementation architecture will continue to play a key role by encouraging ambition on national climate commitments like Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and long-term strategies (LTS); enabling transparency and accountability; facilitating means of implementation and learning; and engaging a wide range of stakeholders to share their voices. Beyond this, we consider the UNFCCC much like a lighthouse or a compass — or even a catalyst at times — that can reveal a path to be followed by decision-makers from countries, corporations and cities.

City skyline in Paris, France
Paris, France. The international Paris Agreement on climate change, adopted in 2015, has been the world's guiding North Star for multilateral climate action. Photo by Nikada/iStock

3 Essential Actions to Enhance Intergovernmental Climate Initiatives

To their credit, the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement have already helped spur a plethora of efforts to mobilize cooperative climate action around the world. The Global Action Climate Ecosystem portal documents more than 500 international cooperative initiatives, including intergovernmental efforts such as the Global Geothermal Alliance and Cool Coalition.

Yet critics point to these groups’ shortcomings, such as theiaspirational nature and open membership; the absence of appropriate objectives and incentives and the lack of clear metrics and accountability mechanisms.

We believe that the complex ecosystem is a good basis, but must be geared towards impact-oriented and politically viable modes of cooperation among governments. We foresee polycentric model of climate governance, in which the global directions set forth by the Paris Agreement are contextualized and further specified by the actors with the required expertise and mandate. The Paris Agreement’s goals would then ultimately be realized by targeted sectoral agreements or agreements relating to issues such as trade, security and other issues.

Three things need to happen outside the Paris Agreement to enhance international climate action:

1) More engagement and participation from developing countries in sectoral cooperation.

Many of the initiatives referred to above have emerged organically after being established by a government or an international organization with an interest in a particular sector or technology.  

These existing initiatives have primarily been conceptualized in, or at least influenced by, developed country governments owing to expectations about leadership as well as overall capacity. This is also the case with models for future cooperation, with a large portion of concepts being put forward by academics and commentators associated with institutions from the “Global North.” For example, among the ideas put forward, it is probably the concept of “clubs”—a voluntary group which derives mutual benefits from sharing the costs of producing a shared good or service — that has received the most attention, with some authors presenting them as the only credible means to deliver ambition at scale and address concerns with free riding.

At the same time, voices from the “Global South” have generally focused on national challenges and depart from the expectation, as enshrined in the Paris Agreement, that climate action in their territories should be enabled by finance and technology. Understandably, developing countries expect leadership from the North, and many have also expresseconcern with the emergence of unilateral measures such as the Carbon Boarder Adjustment Mechanism of the EU.

We believe that governments, think tanks and other actors must come together for a proper consideration of and debate on arrangements for cooperation and their underlying logic. Alternative viewpoints to consider include those that stress the local nature of climate politics, where actions by a country are not necessarily determined or influenced by the actions of others; and the presence and strength of social norms, which lead actors to naturally cooperate  as long as certain conditions are met, and which lead to trust and mutual support. Developing nations must actively participate in the debate and receive support to further develop and promote their concepts for cooperation, as well as materialize them either within existing initiatives or through the establishment of new ones.

This is necessary as decisions taken in and by developing countries will increasingly determine the world’s ability to limit global warming. Already, developing nations account for the largest share of current global emissions and emissions growth — albeit not in historical terms — and their contribution will continue to grow as they advance their economic development goals.

2) Intergovernmental forums must drive the ambition agenda.

Climate change action has increasingly gained widespread attention in the international and regional spheres of diplomacy. For example, member states of the African Union or ASEAN regularly discuss and decide on their position on issues being negotiated under the UNFCCC and have long cooperated on climate through regional platforms and initiatives on topics including finance, resilience, green energy and more. The G7 convenes ministerial meetings on climate to agree on political directions on energy or financial cooperation. Also, regional or bilateral agreements directly or indirectly tackle climate through energy or trade (see, for example, thSamarkand Declaration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and organizations such as the International Energy Agency play a vital role in providing quantitative analysis on energy to a few forums and individual countries.

However, while work on specific technical aspects of policies and technologies linked to renewable energy or energy efficiency is already actively being pursued in many of these spheres, much less work is done expressly to advance action aimed at achieving Paris-compatible emissions trajectories and fulfilling countries’ NDCs and long-term strategies (LTS). Furthermore, there are instances of international agreements on trade, investment and energy that hinder countries’ climate ambitions — for example, when governments refrain from climate regulation in the pursuit of foreign capital flows, or in energy agreements where fossil energy sources feature prominently.  

A key first step for taking on the “ambition agenda” could be for intergovernmental forums — including regional ones (e.g., ASEAN and the African Union) and those targeting specific issues like trade or security (e.g., APEC or SCO) — to adopt explicit political directives for climate change, including for decarbonization, resilience and sectoral transformation. They could then evaluate the implications of their climate and non-climate decisions and activities based on these directives. Bolder steps would include the adoption of Paris Agreement-compatible goals, which serve as a guide for overall cooperation and implementation of sectoral actions, akin to steps being taken by multilateral development banks to align their activities with the Paris Agreement. 

In short, much as actors within the UNFCCC should not bear the exclusive — and impossible — duty of solving every aspect of the climate response, so, too, must actors engaged in regional and specialized forums and organizations adopt this responsibility and the politics it entails. Non-climate institutions in specific sectors or geographies can be leveraged to generate political signals and trigger the action necessary to make them a reality.    

3) Like-minded governments should invest more in strengthening and developing action-oriented initiatives and agreements.

The growth in international cooperative initiatives in recent years has been a very encouraging signal of governments’ interest in pursuing sectoral transformation and spurring action to help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Yet as we noted above, the current landscape is not yet meeting its full potential.  

Cooperation must ultimately go beyond the exchange of knowledge and expertise and pursue the design, implementation and coordination of sector- or issue-based policies and measures, such as: standards or carbon pricing instruments; the coordination of and cost-sharing for technology R&D; and the design and deployment of financial instruments, including public climate finance, to reduce the costs of investing in green technologies and practices. Current examples moving in the right direction are scarce. The Just Transition Partnerships or the Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum have made progress, but they still have ample room for improvement. 

Of course, the most appropriate arrangements will be context-specific. But there are a wide range of sectors and cross-cutting issues for which action is imperative, including unabated coal and other fossil fuels, industrial and agricultural emissions, deforestation, and critical technologies and minerals. As the IPCC recently noted: “Rapid and far-reaching transitions across all sectors and systems are necessary to achieve deep and sustained emissions reductions and secure a livable and sustainable future for all.”  

In engaging in targeted cooperation, governments and leaders from non-state organizations should consider the following general directives with a view to secure effective agreements: 

  • Provide legitimacy by drawing from the scientific consensus of the IPCC, including sectoral and other benchmarks from the literature, and the principles and aims of the UNFCCC and its instruments;
  • Pursue concrete and narrow objectives that support key unaddressed solutions and provide clarity on expectations, expected costs and benefits of participation;
  • Enhance flexibility in decision-making and influence by securing the participation of a small number of governments and, as relevant, leaders from non-state organizations — all of which represent a critical mass relating to the identified objectives;
  • Secure participation through incentives that address immediate and material concerns such as costs, capacity, competitiveness or responsibility — for example, financial assistance, measures to level the playing field, access to the benefits of mutual action and cooperation; and 
  • Ensure accountability by incorporating mechanisms to receive and evaluate information on the activities pursued by members and their impact on the set objectives.
Men clean solar panels in a Kenyan national park
Men clean solar panels in a Kenyan national park. Photo by Carl Fourie/iStock

In Governments and Diplomacy, We Trust

The world is moving through 2023 and coming to terms with several global challenges. If history is any guide, seldom do big changes and new thinking emerge in the absence of a crisis. Already, climate events are wreaking havoc in many countries. Governments must not wait for an unresolvable crisis to push international cooperation forward.

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WRI’s experts are closely following the UN climate talks. Watch our Resource Hub for new articles, research, webinars and more.

The challenges humanity faces demand concerted and coordinated efforts by all countries, with particular attention to the challenges facing developing nations and the increasing relevance of those countries’ decisions. 

The international community can embrace the spirit of solidarity that made the Paris Agreement possible by beginning to look beyond it.