Multilateral Climate Efforts Beyond the UNFCCC

A number of established multilateral regimes offer important avenues for climate mitigation efforts complementary to those of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC ). Tackling discrete dimensions of the climate challenge in regional, sectoral and other global venues can yield action on multiple fronts, contributing toward closing the gap between national pledges and the UN FCCC goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This brief examines ongoing and potential efforts in the International Maritime Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Montreal Protocol, and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.


Global climate change draws the attention of governments at every level, from the village board to the U.N. Security Council. At the international level, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been the hub of efforts to address the threat of climate change. But over time, many other international institutions have become engaged in climate-related work. Indeed, one recent study identified more than sixty institutions that perform some governance function, broadly defined. These include international organizations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Bank, privately-sponsored initiatives such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, and publicprivate partnerships. Together these institutions form what some have called a “transnational regime complex” related to climate change.

Tackling the climate change problem outside the UNFCCC presents both risks and opportunities. On the one hand, proceeding in a piecemeal way in multiple forums may fragment efforts, making it more difficult to mobilize strong global action. On the other hand, given the breadth and complexity of the climate challenge and the limited progress within the UNFCCC, tackling discrete dimensions of the climate challenge in other forums can allow targeted, incremental progress in the near-term, building toward a stronger global response. Moreover, given uncertainties about the success of any individual negotiating process (including the UNFCCC), diversifying one’s portfolio of policy approaches helps reduce the risk of failure.

Among other reasons to pursue climate efforts in other multilateral forums:

  • In institutions with a track record of success, such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, participants have developed working relationships that help instill trust and promote cooperation.
  • Institutions with a sectoral focus, such as the IMO and the ICAO, have a tradition of cooperation that can help facilitate agreement, and allow a response tailored to the specific nature of the sector.
  • Some institutions have procedural rules that make agreement more likely. For example, in contrast to the consensus rule in the UNFCCC, the IMO allows decisions to be made by a qualified majority vote—a voting rule that allowed the recent adoption of mandatory efficiency standards for new ships, despite opposition by China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and others.
  • Some, such as the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), provide a regional forum for action where established relations may make it easier to achieve agreement around shared interests and objectives, particularly where regional aspects of climate change are at issue.

This paper examines the status of, and prospects for, climate-related efforts in a number of established multilateral regimes—specifically, the IMO, ICAO, the Montreal Protocol and CLRTAP. It focuses, in particular, on options to use these negotiating forums to limit emissions. In taking this focus, this paper does not address other important subjects, including (1) work related to adaptation; (2) the host of activities by sub-state actors, private groups, and public-private partnerships to address climate change; (3) the broader political discussions of the climate change issue in forums such as the U.N. Security Council, the G-20, the Major Economies Forum (MEF), and the U.N. Human Rights Council; and (4) the potential to address climate change through adjudication or other forms of dispute settlement.