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Climate change is viewed by many as a classic case of ‘tragedy of the commons’ i.e. anything used commonly and freely by people is not cared for by anyone. ‘Commons’ are usually natural resources such as air, land, water, forests, and fish. Thus, they are not anybody’s private property. The most cited example of this ‘tragedy’ is that of overgrazing of pastures. Herdsmen keep on adding animals for additional gains which eventually leads to overgrazing. Although overgrazing by a single herdsman’s cattle will have negligible effect on the pasture, collectively, overgrazing by all herdsmen results in its ruination.

A free natural resource, the earth’s climate too has been severely over-exploited. Conversely, as a common resource free for all to use, climate change may be addressed using the notion of ‘public goods’. Public goods are characterised by non-rivalry i.e. the use of goods by one person do not reduce another’s ability to use them, and non-excludability i.e. no one can be excluded or prevented from using the goods. Most environmental resources – air, water, land, biodiversity, and climate – inherently fulfil this description.

In recent years the concept of public goods has become increasingly relevant at the international level, with climate as the prominent global public good. This is where non-state actors, along with sovereign states, play a crucial part.While under international lawnation states are the primary contracting parties, implementation of treaties and other international agreements, is also linked to non-state and sub-state actors such as sub-national governments, cities and local authorities. The Paris Agreement reached in 2015 has introduced a bottom-up approach of emissions reduction by inviting countries to submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) stating their respective mitigation targets. It also signifies a shift from an exclusive state-centric approach to one that welcomes climate action by ‘non-party stakeholders’, as the Agreement terms them. In the climate change arena, the notion of non-state actors also includes international organizations, civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), indigenous people, women, youth, academic and financial institutions, andthe private sector.

Non-state actors have for long acted as pressure groups in the international climate regime. From the late 1980s onwards, a number of civil society movements and NGOs began to display increased interest in the climate movement owing to concerns over environmental degradation such as ozone holes, as well as efforts by the United Nations in establishment of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and adoption of instruments such as United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention on Bio Diversity, and Convention to Combat Desertification. Over the years, these movements have transformed from small and localised community awareness and action to in-person attendance, observation, and adviceat international climate change events. Unambiguous scientific evidence of human induced climate change by the IPCCin its 4th assessment report,released in 2007,has also furthered non-state climate action. In the past decade, a large number of people worldwide have suffered greatly owing to longer and intense heatwaves, floods, storms and droughts. Tellingly, an unprecedented number of non-state actors registered for the UNFCCC’s                    15th Conference of Parties (COP) in Copenhagen in 2009. Failure of the international community to reach a decision on carbon emissions reductions at Copenhagen resulted in wide scale protests by thousands of climate activists.

The role of non-state actors has since amplified. They have gained official recognition and acknowledgment as important stakeholders during the 20thCOP at Lima, in 2014where the Lima-ParisAction Agenda (LPAA) was launched.The LPAA was primarily meant to demonstrate non-state actors’ commitment to reach the Paris Agreement but it also focused on pre-2020 emissions mitigation actions.Itwas instrumental in mobilising dozens of climate action initiatives from thousands of non-state actors across sectors such as agriculture, buildings, energy, forests, innovation, resilience, short-lived climate pollutants and transport.An online platform, Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA), was created to track global non-state climate action. At the 21st COP in Paris the Global Climate Action Agenda (GCAA) was launched as a successor to the LPAA in order to facilitate, among other things, engagement with non-state actors.

The Paris Agreement recognises ‘the importance of the engagements of all levels of government and various actors, in accordance with respective national legislations of Parties, in addressing climate change’.More importantly, the decision of the 21stCOP to adopt the Paris Agreement has institutionalised the role and engagement of non-state actors with the UNFCCC. Countries have welcomed the efforts of non-state actors to address and respond to climate change, and have called upon them to enhance climate actionin order to reduce emissions and build resilience. Non state actors have been encouraged to work with governments to strengthen mitigation and adaptation action, especially in the technical examination process. With a view to increase engagement between country delegates, international organizations and non-state actors, a high level event will be organised at each COP up to 2020.  The COP decision is also mindful of the potential of the private sector and need for incentivising emission reduction activities by countries in their domestic policies.

Non-state actors such as civil society and NGOs have diverse experience and can assist countries in meeting their climate changetargets. Since NGOs often work at the grass roots level, they have greater interaction with those at the receiving end of climate change – socially disadvantaged groups at risk such as the poor, the disabled, women and indigenous communities. Building on their previous efforts, NGOs are also well placed to impart awareness, education and training on climate change mitigation and adaptation – use of renewable and energy efficient cooking stoves, improvised cultivation techniques in order to conserve soil and water, health and sanitation, and even disaster prevention, preparation and management. Well respected individuals and NGOs can influence public opinion and consequently, policy decisions leading to mobilisation of political will to fight climate change.

Sub-national and non-state actors can have a major impact on climate change mitigation. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report indicates that together cities, businesses and other non-state actors have the potential to mitigate 2.5 – 4 billion tons of CO2 by 2020. Globally, urban areas account for approximately 70% of energy-related greenhouse gas(GHG) emissions with the building and construction sector responsible for more than 20% of global emissions. The transport sector accounts for 25% of global GHG emissions.Energy efficient initiatives and renewable energy powered systems can have a huge impact on emissions reduction. Since cities are densely populated and feel the effects of climate change acutely, both authorities and residents can take pro-active steps towards creating resilience mechanisms.The recent air pollution crisis that choked Delhi and other large cities and towns across north India is an alarming example of how levels of short lived climate pollutants can spike overnight with devastating consequences. Another example of vulnerability is the possible impact of rising sea levels which could put almost 40 million Indians in coastal cities,at risk by 2050.

The private sector can aid mitigation and adaptation in both urban and rural areas. Banks and other financial institutions are crucial for financing adaptation and mitigation costs. Companies investing in efficient, green, renewable, and low carbon technology must receive a fillipthrough government backed subsidies. It ispossible that over a period of time these green businesses will also garner social and political influence and help push climate action forward in a positive manner.

At the ongoing 22nd COP at Marrakech, a number of sub and non-state actors are present in order to engage with the UNFCCC process on themes such as energy, resilience, gender, education, cities, transport, agriculture, forests, land etc. Climate change is an unprecedented challenge of enormous magnitude. To combat it and sustain the world for future generations innovative solutions and assistance from all quarters is needed. The acceptance and acknowledgement of non-state actors as key stakeholders in the climate change discourse is a welcome step and will prove mutually beneficial for both sovereign and non-state actors.

Zeenat Masoodi is a lawyer living in Srinagar, also a COP 22 online fellow for Climate Tracker. Email:


  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The importance of non- state actors in implementing climate change policy has assumed great significance due to the governments failure to address climate change , specially the rich nations . Also, these voluntary organisations have wider information on the implementation of policies as well as consequences of non- implementation of steps towards clean environment. The future may witness proactive role of non- state actors and environmental organisations in achieving sustainable goals.

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