Risks of Nonstate Action in Sustainability and Climate Governance

by | Jan 31, 2019

The more engagement the better?

Although sustainable development and climate change are governed through separate international processes, they converge on two key assumptions. First, governments fall far short of the goals they set. Second, wide gaps between political commitments and governmental action can be narrowed through efforts by nonstate actors, such as businesses, investors, civil society organizations, cities, and regions. Encouraged by prominent leaders such as US President Barack Obama and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Christiana Figueres, international organizations and governments are leading large-scale efforts to promote and mobilize nonstate actions. These efforts are based on recurring optimistic arguments, such as ‘the more action, the better’, ‘everybody wins from nonstate action’, ‘every actor can do its part in implementation’, and ‘action by one will inspire others to take action’.

Optimistic arguments about nonstate engagement, however, may not be matched in practice due to governance risks. The current emphasis focus on quantifiable impacts may lead to the under-appreciation of social, economic, and environmental impacts that are less easy to measure. Claims that everybody stands to benefit may easily be contradicted by outcomes that are not in line with priorities and needs of developing countries. Despite the broad acceptance of the role of nonstate actors in implementation, their actions may still lead to controversial outcomes. Finally, nonstate climate action may not be self-reinforcing, but heavily depend on policies by international organizations and governments.

Governments and international organizations should consider governance risk-reduction strategies to maximize the potential contributions of nonstate actors in sustainable and climate-resilient development. First, they should create enabling environment that provide incentives to engage, for instance through improving access to knowledge, high-level recognition, material and immaterial support, and by conveying that climate and sustainability action is possible and doable. Second, nonstate action needs to be grounded in national and regional contexts; particular attention should be given to strengthening capabilities of, and fostering participation by, developing country-based actors. Third, far-reaching transformations cannot be achieved without critical masses of engagement, therefore the challenge is to stimulate action beyond ‘champions’ and frontrunners. Especially governments need to bring to focus the ramifications of the sustainable and climate-resilient futures they have committed to and give nonstate actors a fair chance to adapt.

How the relation between nonstate action and more traditional governance will evolve remains to be seen. This relation may develop differently across sustainable development and climate governance. However, maximizing nonstate potential will take supportive environments which reduce risks and bolster momentum for transformative actions.


Kindly contributed by the authors.



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