MPs: the missing pieces to national action on climate change

Climate change is a global problem, and the current prevailing paradigm would have us think that the only solution is a global one. But many countries are forging ahead with their own plans in the meantime – and MPs are important actors in this process.

Barry Smith's picture Corinne Schoch's picture
Insight by 
Barry Smith
Corinne Schoch
01 August 2012
People stand by a drought-stricken lake in Xinjiang Province, north-west China.

People stand by a drought-stricken lake in Xinjiang Province, north-west China. The country has begun to draft its own climate change legislation which it plans to pass in 2015. Credit: Copyright, Simon Lim

A global solution is desirable, but action is also required outside of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Given the slow pace for developing an international agreement, and the current lack of a universally-binding agreement, some nations are moving ahead and beyond the UNFCCC by adopting a tandem national approach to combat the impacts of climate change by enacting domestic legislation based on their own set of circumstances. This approach doesn’t replace the formal regime, but can, and should, accompany it.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, would seem to agree: “…at the international level, …domestic legislation opens the political space for international agreements and facilitates overall ambition,” she said.  

There are several examples of nations acting now. The UK and Scotland, as well as the recent Mexican legislation are good examples of ambitious national policies. Costa Rica’s National Strategy on Climate Change [PDF] sets out a two-pronged approach; a national strategy concentrating on domestic activity, and an international strategy which recognises that they cannot go it alone.

South Korea, has also become the first developing country in Asia to pass a nationwide greenhouse gas Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) which will take effect in 2015. This is especially interesting given that under the current UNFCCC they have no obligation to reduce their emissions. China has also begun to draft its own climate change legislation which it plans to pass in 2015.

There are inherent challenges in unilateral action, such as a lack of coordination amongst nations, and the possibility of ‘DIY climate policies’ not being effective. But, as some have pointed out,  “’Global solutions’ negotiated at a global level—if not backed up by a variety of efforts at national, regional, and local levels—are not guaranteed to work effectively.”1

Parliament can help tackle climate change

MPs are important actors driving this process. Their role as legislators, overseers and shepherds of climate policy was recently highlighted during the 1st Globe World Summit of Legislators, which culminated in the drafting of the soft law instrument Rio+20 Legislators Protocol . But, they also act as important catalysts for a shift from short-term political thinking towards longer-term climate and development considerations.

“Parliamentarians have a profound influence,” Ban Ki Moon said when speaking at the Summit of Legislators. “You enact legislation. You approve budgets. You are at the heart of democratic governance. And in today’s interconnected world, you are also the link between the global and local – bringing local concerns into the global arena, and translating global standards into national action.”

There is evidence of MPs striving to fulfil these roles in Ghana. The ongoing drafting of the National Climate Change Policy Framework (NCCPF) that sits within the broader Ghana Shared Growth & Development Agenda could prove to be a good opportunity for MPs to hold their Executive to account over climate action. But questions remain; can MPs in Ghana effectively fulfil these roles as legislators, overseers and shepherds of climate policy?

The first step: training MPs

MPs are generally aware of the short-term impacts of climate change and are willing to act. But they appear less sure of the appropriate policy response required to do so. If MPs are to play their part in the ‘bottom-up’ design of climate policy, and if countries such as Ghana are to join the growing number of nations acting in parallel with the UNFCCC, the knowledge and skills of Parliamentarians need to be developed (often referred to as ‘capacity building’) so they can truly hold their government to account.

Certainly, tackling domestic climate change can’t be confined to cutting emissions, as climate change is a cross-cutting issue. A raft of initiatives and regulatory measures aimed at mitigation and adaptation is required. 

MPs need training on how to effectively mainstream climate considerations into sectoral policy and legislation, and how to scrutinise dedicated umbrella policies – proposed by the Executive. An example of one such umbrella policy in Ghana is the National Climate Change Policy Framework (NCCPF). Indeed both approaches are necessary to ensure a comprehensive approach to the effects of climate change.  

The what and how of Parliamentary capacity building

The institutional architecture and the processes of Parliament merits consideration as well when developing a training or ‘capacity building’ programme. This includes covering the mechanics of parliamentary business: the committees, the support networks, political relationships, partisanship and Executive influence.

In Ghana, for example, there is often a high attrition rate of MPs after a General Election. So it’s important to work with the Parliamentary Services to ensure continuity across parliamentary cycles. Clerks can help ensure that climate change is integrated into committee business. But if due consideration is not given to such structures and processes, than acquired institutional knowledge gained by MPs may be lost, hampering the integration of climate change responses into debate and decision-making.

Two sides of the same coin

International agreements are vital, and countries can’t just act in isolation. However if international agreements continue to come up short, a point may be reached where there is a critical mass of nations that have enacted their own national legislation – an alternative route to a similar outcome. Before any of this can take place, the capacity of key stakeholders must be built. They form the human foundation for effective national action plans to tackle climate change.

1: Ostrom, E., Nested externalities and polycentric institutions: must we wait for global solutions to climate change before taking actions at other scales?, Journal of Economic Theory, Vol. 49, Issue 2 (2012), page 354

Barry Smith is a consultant with IIED’s Climate Change Group. Corinne Schoch is a researcher in IIED’s Climate Change Group.

Want to find out more? Read the briefing: Preparing parliament for the climate challenge in Ghana.