Climate progress from the bottom up

At a time when countries around the world are searching for ways to lift their climate change ambition, new research highlights the important role being played by non-governmental agencies in New Zealand.

New_Zealand_Rural_landscape-wikimediaOne example is New Zealand Post which, between 2008 and 2012, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 16.1 percent, well above its target of 12 percent.

Another is the Christchurch City Council which, despite the series of earthquakes that struck the South Island city in 2010 and 2011, is continuing to carry out some interesting initiatives as part of its Sustainable Energy Strategy. Examples include the Council’s $69 investment in Copenhagen-style cycle ways and the establishment of a $1.8 million fund to encourage the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures in the central city rebuild.

These initiatives are notable because they have occurred at a time when New Zealand’s international negotiating position on climate change has been far from proactive. Despite the nation’s historic reputation for principled international diplomacy – on free trade, nuclear arms and international cooperation – the government has in recent years successfully positioned New Zealand as merely a “fast follower”.

But that hasn’t stopped the rest of the country. While the government was attempting to shelve much of New Zealand’s climate policy, local government and businesses recognised their responsibility and power to make a difference. They did this at a local level, but they have increasingly had a global impact as they have joined forces with like-minded organisations across the world.

One such global community is the Global Reporting Initiative. New Zealand Post has, for the last few years, reported annually on key sustainability indicators as part of its membership of this Initiative. Meridian Energy – New Zealand’s largest renewable electricity generator – and Westpac Bank – one of the country’s biggest banks – have also used the guidelines for reporting.

A recent policy memorandum from Dr Thomas Hale at the Blavatnik School of Government shows that these companies are not alone in joining such a global network. Dr Hale outlines how over 14,000 sub- and non-state actors worldwide have participated in a diverse set of actions designed to demonstrate climate leadership. Hale writes:

“Alongside the slow-moving multilateral negotiations, sub-state actors like cities, provinces, states and regions and non-state actors like private companies, civil society groups, and others have demonstrated extraordinary climate leadership. These actions are highly diverse, ranging from city- or company-level emission reduction targets, to changes in local governments’ building, transportation, or other climate-relevant policies, to measuring and pricing carbon within firms.”

It seems that these networks are providing an alternative fora for actors to lift their climate change ambition, and New Zealand is no exception. Alongside New Zealand Post, the Christchurch City Council is a member of the Covenant of Mayors. The Covenant, which aims to reduce cities’ carbon emissions, has been joined by over 5,000 signatories representing 182 million people.

Figure 1: Participation in TCG Initiatives per unit of GDP (Source: Andonova, Hale and Roger 2014)*

As Figure 1 shows, New Zealand is a more active participant in transnational climate governance (TCG) initiatives than many others, including the USA and Canada. A big driver of this is the participation by New Zealand cities in various TCG initiatives. Another is the high level of participation in the Climate Neutral Network (now disbanded). This initiative focused upon showcasing strategies by companies, organisations, cities and states, with information and ideas shared to fellow participants.

Important questions arise about such initiatives. They need to be scrutinised to ensure that participants are delivering on their promises and there is a danger that they will allow organisations to “greenwash” by emphasising a few symbolic successes without changing the fundamental footprint of the organisation or region.

These questions should be asked and answered but, as we do so, we should also recognise that this bottom-up view of the world offers an exciting new way of understanding global challenges like climate change. By expanding the range of relevant players beyond governments, it demonstrates the groundswell of global activity.

In a context where proactive steps are consistently held up by debate and blame-shifting, there is something powerful about a framework that supports a diversity of actions and focuses on building momentum by saying “yes and” to initiatives rather than “yes but”.

*For further information see: Andonova, L., T. Hale and C. Roger “How Do Domestic Politics Condition Participation in Transnational Climate Governance?”, Working paper.

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