Solving the climate change problem requires collective action on a global level. The stability of the Earth's climate is a global public good, which suggests that an internationally coordinated approach is necessary to protect it.1 However, progress in the multilateral framework that was created for this purpose, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has been slow as agreement has been difficult to reach among countries with varying sizes, levels of development, governance structures, responsibility for historical emissions and capacity to engage in the negotiations.2 The gap between currently pledged emissions trajectories and global emissions levels consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5° or 2° Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures remains large.3 It is therefore not surprising that a range of proposals have emerged in the literature4 and been put into practice on how smaller groupings of countries can address the problem outside the UNFCCC framework, either as a substitute or a complement to the multilateral climate negotiations.
In this article, we refer to these groupings as ‘climate clubs’. The term ‘clubs’ includes any grouping that comprises more than two and less than the full multilateral set of countries party to the UNFCCC and that has not reached the degree of institutionalization of an international organization. While clubs may include other stakeholders, they are predominantly governed and funded by national governments. This broad definition can include very different degrees of formality and organization. Regular conferences and meetings, as well as groupings frequently referred to as ‘initiatives’, ‘forums’ or ‘partnerships’, are, for the purposes of this article, all included in the ‘clubs’ term. We exclusively consider clubs that discuss and promote greenhouse gas emissions reductions or a sub-issue directly relevant to climate change mitigation, such as the promotion of renewable energies. Clubs with an emphasis on adaptation are outside the scope of this article.
The literature is rich with explorations of the clubs theme. Biermann and colleagues review the existing literature and outline four aspects – speed, ambition, participation and equity – that are frequently mentioned as to why clubs may be an effective mechanism for change.5 Regarding speed, a smaller set of countries may be faster negotiators and more able to advance contentious issues without backlogs of negotiations. With regard to ambition, cooperation theory posits that smaller groups can be ‘narrow-but-deep’, reaching substantial policy goals that would not have been reached in a ‘broad-but-shallow’ regime that has more participants but less ambition due to the compulsions of placating all signatories.6 Clubs are also thought to possess more innovative capacity on subsets of climate issues such as measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) and land-use and forestry, and thus serve to raise the overall level of capacity and ambition in the international arena.7 Participation and equity are linked by the idea that a smaller club could have fewer barriers to entry for a wider range of stakeholders and can thus allow for tailored solutions for less influential countries, which previously would have been subsumed in a larger process more dominated by bigger players.8
While proposals to address climate change can be framed in many different ways – for example, from the environmental justice and ethics perspectives9 – many of the clubs proposals in the literature are consistent with game theory analyses of climate change, grounded in a particular strand of international relations theory.10
Some authors suggest that many of the flaws in global bodies such as the UNFCCC can be addressed at smaller scales.11 From this perspective, smaller groupings could become more relevant than the UNFCCC, potentially replacing it.12 Other authors posit that while smaller groupings are important to make progress, they cannot replace agreement within the UNFCCC.13 They point out that because climate change is caused by the cumulative effects of all global emissions, all major emitters need to be brought into an agreement to avoid free rider problems that would undermine the effectiveness of any solution. Furthermore, the impacts of climate change are affecting all countries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, so they need to have a voice in the decision-making process to ensure an ambitious outcome that will be accepted as legitimate.14 In addition, the politics that plague the UNFCCC can be mirrored in other smaller forums, such as the G20, and therefore simply moving from one large group to a smaller group with the same interests represented may not ensure progress.15
In recent years, we have seen many climate clubs emerge, particularly after 2005, when negotiations on a post-2012 climate regime began in the UNFCCC.16 It is fair to say, however, that the current institutional landscape, including the UNFCCC and the existing climate clubs, is not catalyzing ambitious action at the scale required to reach the agreed goal of keeping the global average temperature increase below 2°C in comparison with pre-industrial levels.17 While existing clubs each serve a certain purpose, none has resulted in the necessary large-scale ambitious emissions reductions. The potential suggested in the literature for clubs to allow more ambitious action has thus not been realized in practice. This article therefore seeks to explore if a new kind of transformational climate club could help build momentum to close the emissions gap.
What would make a climate club ‘transformational'? The transformational change we are ultimately envisaging are emissions reductions in line with what climate science suggests is needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Due to the global public good nature of climate stability, a large number of countries would have to contribute to these reductions. According to some authors, this suggests that a club needs to include all major emitters.18 However, it is unlikely that they would all participate in a club with ambitious goals from the outset. We take the view, by contrast, that clubs can be transformational without including all or most major emitters. In this view, clubs contribute to global emissions reductions indirectly by providing an attractive model that others, including major emitters, will follow in the long run. A transformational club would provide a proof of concept for low-emissions development, accelerate technology development and diffusion, create momentum and catalyze other initiatives. It could start small and grow over time. As it broadens its reach and becomes more institutionalized, it could become a ‘low-carbon union’ that provides multiple benefits for its members and that others want to join.
This approach to thinking about transformational clubs nonetheless implies that the club needs to set a model that has actual transformational potential – that is, if replicated by others it would lead to the necessary emissions reductions. This means that a transformational club needs to lead to actions in the participating countries that are commensurate with what climate science suggests would be the appropriate reductions for those countries.19 In order for replication to occur, the club also needs to involve a critical mass of ‘relevant’ countries so that the model is recognized by others who could then become interested in replicating it. This does not imply an exclusive focus on large emitters as there are other factors that could make a country ‘relevant’. For example, countries can be relevant (a) politically or strategically, because they are important allies or a leading voice within a given region or country group; (b) economically, because of a large gross domestic product or because they are a major producer or consumer of certain goods; or (c) symbolically, because they are, for instance, an island nation that is existentially threatened by climate change and can set a strong signal for low-carbon development.20
This understanding of transformational clubs also means that a multilateral forum is still needed to coordinate action among the larger set of countries. We thus envision transformational clubs that would complement rather than replace the multilateral framework by catalyzing greater ambition that could eventually be captured in the UNFCCC. Exploring such clubs and their potential links to the UNFCCC is particularly relevant in the context of the negotiations that were started at the seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP-17) in Durban 2011 with the goal of developing ‘a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties’ by 2015 at the latest to come into effect in 2020.21 In order to explore the potential of such transformational clubs, this article begins by grouping and analyzing the existing clubs. It then moves on to a short survey of new club approaches in the literature and identifies potential incentives for forming new transformational clubs.