The Dilemma of Orchestrating Non-state Climate Action

Lena Bendlin


Copyright Lena Bendlin

Public authorities such as the metropolis of Rennes, France, encourage affiliated municipalities to make voluntary climate commitments to the Covenant of Mayors. Credit: Lena Bendlin


Voluntary climate change mitigation commitments have emerged as an important aspect of global climate governance. These include commitments from national governments (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) and from non-state actors such as local governments and the private sector. But the crucial issue is: do they work?

Take the case of the Covenant of Mayors (CoM) that was launched by the European Commission in late 2008. It has gathered more than 7,500 signatures. Local governments pledge to implement the European climate and energy targets and to report regularly. My research finds that the key contribution of the CoM so far has been to documents existing contributions to emission reductions instead of stimulating additional reductions. Viewed this way, the CoM is a sorting mechanism and not a shaping mechanism. As a signaling device, it helps outside stakeholders to identify existing climate leaders. However, it does not stimulate these leaders to take climate actions beyond what they are already doing.

How Does the Covenant of Mayors Work?

The European Commission lacks the competences and resources to directly address municipalities located in its member countries. But it recognizes that along with specifying targets, it may need to provide technical help to municipalities that have joined this program on even seemingly simple topics such as how to document and report their emission reduction efforts. Therefore, it established the CoM Office, a secretariat that issues handbooks and guidelines for municipalities. It comprises several regional and national helpdesks in order to respond to municipalities’ domestic framework conditions.

In addition, the CoM invites public authorities to serve as Covenant Coordinators. They provide tailored training and practical assistance for reporting emission reductions as well as climate planning and policy-making more generally. Rennes Metropolis, an agglomeration in Brittany, France, was particularly successful in convincing its member municipalities to sign the CoM. Few mayors wanted to stay behind when their peers took the public commitment to engage in climate action. For continuous networking and technical assistance, Rennes Metropolis assigned the local energy agency with animating an inter-municipal working group.

So, does the Program Work?

Municipalities make use of the CoM in many ways such as internal policy-making or in political negotiations with outside actors. The number of CoM Signatories continues to grow, despite the suspension of participants who defaulted on their obligation to report regularly to the CoM Office. But this has also posed a problem. The CoM Office is unable to stay in touch with all participants, let alone to provide as detailed assistance as they would wish for. Hundreds of Signatories have been suspended for overdue reporting. Many municipalities complain of high workload to fulfil CoM reporting obligations.

Further, it seems the onerous reporting requirements may be preempting resources required for real climate action. Take the German case where many municipalities already have well-functioning climate policies. But they rely on a different methodology to document their efforts and benefit less by adopting the new reporting guidelines that the CoM requires.

In light of the proliferation of schemes motivating local governments to undertake climate action, it is sometimes difficult to document the unique or additional contribution CoM participation makes towards emission reductions. One way to approach the double counting issue is to create a registry where the joining party registers its specific policy devoted to climate mitigation. This way the registrar can make sure that this party does not take credit for the same policy under different programs. For a practical application of this idea, take the case of the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), launched in Lima 2014. NAZCA registers commitments made under various schemes, including the CoM.

Lessons for Public Administration

These findings point us to tensions between local and global politics. The CoM brings together public administrations from the European to the municipal level. They have different priorities in mind when they participate in the CoM. For international actors such as the European Union, the documentation of voluntary commitments is wat to push for more ambitious national contributions within the international climate negotiations. This requires reliable data generated by local authorities. However, the local authority perhaps secures little benefit from establishing a database documenting its climate actions. It finds the workload for reporting to be high but tangible benefits from CoM membership or support it receives from the EU or other higher level authorities to be modest.

Two lessons emerge. First, voluntary programs that impose extensive burden on participating actors must provide tangible benefits. Otherwise, participating units will have incentives to put in the minimal effort with the objective to retain their membership, instead of implementing the program objectives in their true spirit. Second, public administrators should wonder about the marginal benefits of creating yet another voluntary program to motivate local climate action. Apart from the double counting problem, multiple programs create an information overload for external stakeholders, thereby reducing the reputational payoffs participants receive from joining a single program.

Lena Bendlin is a doctoral candidate at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, and holds a Franco-German double degree in Political Science with a focus on European Studies.