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New Alliances

Plurilateral initiatives as a mode of cooperation in international climate politics

SWP Research Paper 2023/RP 06, 06.07.2023, 25 Seiten



Dr Marian Feist is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hertie School. He was Associate in the Global Issues Research Division and in the “Green Deal Diplomacy” project at SWP.

  • Plurilateral initiatives are again gaining importance in climate diplomacy as a complement to multilateral efforts – not least in view of the lack of progress in implementing the Paris Agreement and more difficult conditions in the UN process.

  • New alliances are expected to facilitate agreement within smaller groups of countries wishing to lead by example and to effectively advance cli­mate action with ambitious goals and more stringent measures. This, in turn, can have an impact beyond individual initiatives and provide normative pressure and incentives for additional states to cooperate.

  • However, plurilateral alliances cannot necessarily overcome the structural challenges that hamper more effective international climate cooperation. In light of this, German and European climate diplomacy should antici­pate the specific procedural challenges of individual initiatives, set prior­ities among the various options, and aim to specify the mandate and design of individual initiatives early on.

Issues and Conclusions

The focus in climate debates on effective international cooperation has recently shifted towards alliances of small groups of pioneering countries. During the climate summit in Glasgow in 2021 (COP 26), a num­ber of such plurilateral initiatives were announced. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, the mechanisms of the multilateral Paris Agreement have so far failed to generate the necessary momentum to reduce emissions. Moreover, the urgency for acceler­ated decarbonisation and adaptation to climate im­pacts is growing. It is becoming increasingly pressing to adapt to the impacts of climate change and to find ways of dealing with irreparable loss and damage, not just in the Global South. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, geopolitical tensions, as well as short- to medium-term shifts in energy policy priorities have further complicated the situation.

It is hoped that plurilateral cooperation formats can overcome political obstacles and thus effectively advance the implementation of the Paris Agreement. National climate action is supposed to be better co­ordinated, multilateral cooperation complemented, and the lack of momentum of global climate action compensated for. In view of interfering problems such as energy security, however, the contextual con­ditions and requirements for diplomatic support are all the more critical if new alliances are to succeed.

Drawing on research on previous initiatives, this study looks at the logic of plurilateral climate co­opera­tion, examines the promises and pitfalls of new alliances against the backdrop of current develop­ments, and discusses the implications for climate diplomacy practice. Plurilateral formats can be an im­portant complementing component to climate action under the Paris Agreement. They can help with im­ple­mentation, but they cannot transcend the existing dynamics of international climate politics nor offer simple solutions to political challenges. It is not only the technical details that matter, but, crucially, also the design of the political process. The procedural challenges of individual initiatives in relation to the associated interests of partner countries must be an­tici­pated. Furthermore, initiatives with clear object­tives and instruments should be prioritised; not every additional initiative offers added value. In all of this, the interests of partner countries in the Global South should also be kept in mind. This includes under­standing plurilateral initiatives as a complementary component to multilateral cooperation efforts.

Background and current developments

Plurilateral cooperation means that smaller groups of states agree to work together – as opposed to the multilateral process or bilateral agreements. This is not a new phenomenon in international climate politics. The climate regime has long been character­ised by a network of different actors, institutions, and forums within and alongside the multilateral pro­cess.1 The failure of the 2009 climate summit in Copen­hagen (COP 15) has greatly contributed to understanding this network as an opportunity for overcoming political obstacles.2 The goal of the Copenhagen summit was to negotiate a new uni­versal, legally binding, global climate agreement to serve as the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This failed. To be sure, there were a few somewhat tan­gible and lasting results, such as the promise by developed countries to mobilise US$100 billion annually for international climate finance by 2020. Measured against its ambition, however, the summit was clearly not successful.3 This raised the question as to what effective international cooperation on climate could look like instead. Plurilateral formats played a key role in this debate. It was hoped that, taken together, they would compensate for the lack of momentum.4 This approach was also discussed in research and policy debates in Germany. A well-received meta-analysis of the landscape of plurilateral initiatives at the time concluded that, although pluri­lateral approaches could play a complementary role, the initiatives actually being proposed would not pro­duce sufficient incentives to compensate for the lack of transformative climate action.5

A number of plurilateral initiatives later emerged in the wake of the Paris Agreement.6 After all, the Agree­ment’s decision document explicitly encourages the participation of actors that are not members of the Convention (“non-party action”).7 This also involves transnational initiatives that are primarily comprised of subnational and non-state actors such as provinces, cities, companies, or civil society organisations.8 An­other important opportunity for plurilateral cooperation in the context of the Paris Agreement are arrange­ments for the transfer of emission credits between countries, as per Article 6 of the Agreement.9 Pluri­lateral initiatives that are institutionalised to a greater or lesser extent therefore take on an important role for the implementation of the Paris Agreement by design.10 The (now reverted) withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement under President Donald Trump in 201911 gave further momentum to the search for alternative options for cooperation.

Implementation of the Paris Agreement

Progress with the implementation of the Paris Agree­ment has been insufficient. Parties committed to limit global warming to well below 2°C and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. Now that the Paris rulebook has been finalised at the climate summits in Katowice (COP 24, 2018) and Glasgow (COP 26, 2021), implementation is what matters. This is expectedly proving difficult in the multilateral context of the UNFCCC: 198 Parties must find a way to reach consensus. The size and complexity of this process make it slow and cumbersome.12 Negotiating the Paris Agreement under these conditions was made possible in part by the fact that the Agreement includes no fixed emis­sion reduction targets for individual countries. In­stead, it is the countries themselves that determine their own ambition levels (Nationally Determined Con­tributions, NDCs). This cooperation logic was new ter­ritory for international climate politics at the time.13 The Agreement does contain mechanisms according to which states must report on their progress every five years (“pledge-and-review”) and raise the ambition of their targets (“ratcheting-up”). Transparency and veri­fiability are supposed to ensure the fulfilment of the pledged contributions. However, there are no sub­stan­tial consequences for non-compliance. By design, the non-sanctioned reporting mechanisms have only a normative effect.

The centre of gravity for decarbonisation has shifted towards national and plurilateral spheres.

There is an emissions reduction gap between the 1.5°C mark and Parties’ targets and measures; with very few exceptions, even the announced NDCs are not compatible with the 1.5°C target.14 Current reduc­tion pledges, if implemented, would lead to an ex­pected warming of 2.7°C instead.15 Following tech­nical deliberations, the political phase of the Paris Agreement’s Global Stocktake16 on progress with miti­gation, adaptation, and finance is to be concluded at COP 28 in Dubai, followed by a new round of NDC announcements. If ratcheting up emission reduction targets in the pledge-and-review process is insufficient to close the gap, this will have severe consequences for the credibility of the multilateral process in terms of mitigation.17 If recent developments are any indi­cation, the UNFCCC process is unlikely to provide a decisive impetus in this regard in the near future. The centre of gravity for decarbonisation has shifted – not least in the spirit of the Paris Agreement – to­wards national and plurilateral spheres.

Trust in and credibility of the multilateral process

In addition to the existing challenges of the multilateral process, the trust of the Global South has been strained recently after promises were not kept. This is not a new problem, but a particularly high level of frustration has built up in recent years. The promise to mobilise US$100 billion a year by 2020 was missed by US$16.7 billion and is now expected to be finally fulfilled in 2023.18 Meanwhile, there is still a con­siderable funding gap, especially with regard to adapting to the impacts of climate change.19 In addi­tion, a new dialogue was launched at COP 26 in Glas­gow to establish a framework for financial support in response to loss and damage due to climate change.20 The German government did demonstrate sensitivity towards the urgent concerns of countries that are par­ticularly affected by climate change, and in the run-up to COP 27, there was talk in diplomatic circles of the need to regain trust. The German Foreign Minister travelled to Palau to assure vulnerable countries such as small island developing states of solidarity on the issue of loss and damage. However, this only hap­pened after negotiations in Bonn on this issue had failed to make any progress in the summer of 2022. Many developed countries favoured an insurance-based solution and were cau­tious to ensure that no legal liability claims could be derived from pledges in the future. In doing so, they underestimated how important a dedicated loss and damage fund would be for developing countries.21 Agreement was only reached sometime later, after the EU had signalled its willingness to support the idea.22

Following repeated promises, what matters from the perspective of the developing countries is ful­filling them. As the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, put it in the run-up to COP 27: “We are commitment-fatigued and we are pledge-fatigued.”23 Against the backdrop of the lack of trust in and strained credibility of the multilateral process, pluri­lateral formats appear to be a viable alternative for making progress, without including the complica­tions of politically difficult UNFCCC processes.

Multiple crises

With regard to the promises of plurilateral climate cooperation, much has recently been made of the fact that there are multiple acute crises in international politics. At the beginning of 2022, things were look­ing comparatively favourable for ambitious climate policy. The United States had returned to the Paris Agreement under President Joe Biden. The European Union (EU) had advanced the implementation of its Green Deal with the European Climate Law.24 The German government set out to develop a more co­herent and strategic approach to Klimaaußenpolitik (literally: climate foreign policy).25 Now, Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 has worsened the conditions for international climate cooperation. To be sure, the nexus between climate and security is by no means a new issue area.26 Nonetheless, pressing short-term energy and security issues are now having a more noticeable impact on international negotiations than before.27 Inflation and the fiscal aftermath of the Covid pandemic are also impacting the politi­cal room for manoeuvre.

Fragmentation in the international system threatens to make inter­national climate cooperation more difficult.

In addition, fragmentation in the international system threatens to make international climate cooperation more difficult,28 including between key actors such as the United States and China. Although there were some positive signals in this regard during the climate conference in Glasgow in 2021,29 cur­rent­ly strained relations have impacted potential climate cooperation between the two countries.30 There are hopes that national industrial policy instruments related to climate action, such as the Inflation Reduc­tion Act in the United States, will mutually enhance one another. High-level cooperation, however – as in the U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s31 – has effectively been suspended in view of recent tensions, for example over the issue of Taiwan.32

On the other hand, the UNFCCC process has displayed a certain degree of resilience. Global political events do shape the contexts of the annual climate summits. The global financial crisis in 2008, for ex­am­ple, had a significant impact on priorities at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 (COP 15). However, technical negotiations on specific issues are not ex­posed to global political dynamics to the same degree. Negotiating strands often take place over several years among smaller groups of diplomats who have built interpersonal relationships. The protracted nature of UNFCCC processes therefore – for all its difficulties – allows for the building of trust among Parties that goes beyond formal compliance mechanisms.33 Rus­sia’s attack on Ukraine has undoubtedly had an impact, but in a more indirect way. For example, the energy policy responses of developed countries such as Germany have been perceived as incoherent to the countries’ climate ambitions, further straining the credibility of emission reduction pledges and the trust of developing countries.34 Plurilateral cooperation is seen as a way to advance the implementation of the Paris Agreement in cooperation with partner coun­tries, even in light of these many issues.

The logic of plurilateral climate cooperation: Potential and pitfalls

Plurilateral cooperation is not a new format in inter­national climate politics. The idea has recently re­gained a lot of traction, and it is hoped that it can help overcome obstacles and effectively advance the implementation of the Paris goals. In the following, we draw on the extensive existing academic and policy literature on the topic to critically examine these promises and highlight the pitfalls. Selected recent and historical examples serve to illustrate the range of plurilateral initiatives and to examine the extent to which the promises are realised in practice.

The negotiation process and ability to reach agreement

As indicated above, one of the key promises of pluri­lateral initiatives is that they simplify the process of reaching agreement, increasing the chances for co­operation.35 Since the number of actors involved is limited by definition, fewer divergent interests need to be reconciled.36 Moreover, the willingness of gov­ernments involved to cooperate in the establishment of a climate policy initiative suggests a relatively high homogeneity of interests, as in a coalition of the will­ing,37 whereas in multilateral UN negotiations, the interests of all Parties must be reconciled. The danger of individual countries or groups of countries block­ing progress is minimised in this context, compared to the UNFCCC process.38

Moreover, plurilateral initiatives on climate cooperation allow for a thematic focus and – at least in the initial phase – a high degree of flexibility with regard to the goals and instruments.39 Global agree­ments must develop their potential enforceability ex ante and, in doing so, must also reconcile diverse interests and priorities on a wide range of issues across the spectrum of international climate policy, including emission reductions, climate impact adap­tation and, more recently, loss and damage as well as carbon removal. In the process, different issues can be played off against each other in the negotiations for tactical reasons – especially in the politically impor­tant Cover Decisions.40 Disagreements on individual issues can therefore jeopardise an entire agreement.

Plurilateral initiatives, on the other hand, tend to focus on specific policy areas or economic sectors.41 This makes it possible to compartmentalise the chal­lenge of reducing emissions into individual components within which the involved actors can more easily determine whether their interests and priorities are being met.42 The greater the technical and legal complexities of an initiative, the more worthwhile it might be to limit the scope in terms of members and issues.43 One of the disadvantages of plurilateral co­operation compared to multilateral agreements – namely, the low number of participants – then becomes a strength.

Plurilateral forums do not in them­selves provide a principled solution to existing political differences.

However, as in multilateral negotiations, controversial issues are often avoided by using vague word­ing in an agreement (“constructive ambiguity”). This may facilitate reaching an initial agreement. But important details then remain to be negotiated. Such post-agreement negotiations are critical for what the initiative will eventually look like and are therefore often no less politically charged. Plurilateral forums can simplify negotiations. However, they do not in themselves provide a principled solution to existing political differences.

Implementation dynamics and spill-over effects

Many plurilateral initiatives focus on a specific goal that their members commit to. For example, at COP 26 in Glasgow, Denmark and Costa Rica launched the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which countries could join in order to pledge phasing-out fossil fuels.44 Normatively affirming a common ambition such as this and providing a framework for negotiating specific instru­ments are in themselves key functions of plurilateral initiatives.45 If the intention is credibly signalled to a critical mass of important actors, this can have an impact on the agenda in the multilateral context of the UNFCCC as well. Moreover, plurilateral initiatives can fulfil a coordinating function, for example by agree­ing on closer cooperation in the development, implementation, and financing of key technologies.46 They can provide a forum for negotiating specific policy solutions and demonstrate their practical viabil­ity.47 If economically strong countries are rep­resented in the initiative, there may also be positive spill-over effects when other countries adopt these policies, similar to the so-called Brussels Effect.48

The core promise of plurilateralism, however, is not just that it facilitates agreement on ambitious new goals, but specifically that it allows for negotiating more stringent policies than could realistically be expected in the multilateral process. Economist Wil­liam Nordhaus has written a seminal paper on this aspect.49 In it, he proposes to respond to the chal­lenge of collective action by establishing a club of pioneer states. Members would agree on common goals and instruments, specifically a common emis­sions trading system. A border adjustment mechanism would then prevent carbon-intensive products from being imported as substitutes from countries outside the club.50 This mechanism would also create incentives for non-cooperating countries to deviate from the otherwise dominant strategy of non-co­opera­tion, counteracting the free-rider problem in international climate cooperation, that is, the prob­lem that non-cooperating countries benefit from the mitigation measures of others.51 The incentives asso­ciated with club benefits would ideally create a posi­tive-sum cascade, enticing ever more countries to join the initiative.52

However, such a club raises politically sensitive questions. Are there sanctioning mechanisms in cases of non-compliance with the conditions for membership? How does the club handle differentiation be­tween members according to the UNFCCC principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). For example, there are exemptions planned for poorer non-EU countries as part of the Carbon Border Adjust­ment Mechanism (CBAM) of the EU Emissions Trading System, but it is considered problematic that wealthy countries would decide whether the climate policies of poorer countries are sufficient for granting such an exemption.53

Normative initiatives whose members are mainly committed to common goals are relatively easy to agree on politically.

The necessary extent of cooperation required for setting up club incentive mechanisms can affect the ability to reach an agreement. The degree of policy coordination and change that is needed is by no means easy to negotiate, even in smaller formats.54 The reasons for this may lie in, for example, the socio-economic implications for the participating countries.55 Another issue could be that mechanisms agreed as part of a plurilateral initiative might be met with less acceptance in the population simply because of the way they were agreed.56 Normative initiatives whose members are mainly committed to common goals are relatively easy to agree on politi­cally; but the more transformative an initiative is in­­tended to be, the more challenging it becomes to reach agreement, even among supposedly like-minded partner countries.57 This carries the risk of postponing the negotiation of the details needed to actually im­ple­ment the initiative. In the process of these nego­tiations, compromises need to be made. This risks diluting the initiative, that is, reducing the level of ambition and stringency in order to maintain the possibility of reaching an agreement. Yet, limiting the need for compromises is precisely the goal of going small in the first place. A key promise of plurilateral cooperation is that it expands the potential extent for ambitious climate action due to the lower level of heterogeneity concerning interests and a smaller number of veto players.


The potential and pitfalls in practice can be illustrated using selected current and historical examples that show what lessons can be learnt for climate diplomacy practice, especially against the backdrop of current political challenges.

Global Methane Pledge

Methane (CH4) is a particularly potent greenhouse gas released by human activity, mainly through fossil fuel extraction and land and waste management.58 The Global Methane Pledge was announced by the United States and the EU at a meeting of the Major Economies Forum in September 2021 and launched at COP 26 in Glasgow in November of that year – with the goal of reducing global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030 compared to 2020.59 The Global Methane Pledge illustrates the low threshold that plurilateral initiatives can have. As a normative club,60 membership initially involves merely a declaration of com­mit­ment to the common goal. Members are neither offered special benefits, nor are there tangible sanc­tions in case of non-compliance. There are 150 coun­tries that have joined the Pledge thus far.61 On the one hand, this suggests a lack of potential momentum for implementation that the initiative can set in motion. It achieves a high degree of universality in terms of many members by means of the voluntary nature of the commitment. On the other hand, the high number of members can increase the pressure on other states to cooperate if the initiative is suc­cess­ful. China, for instance – while often emphasising its right to economic development – is increasingly concerned about being perceived as a responsible actor in international mitigation efforts.62 In light of this, the sheer size of the group signed up for the Global Methane Pledge – even though China is not a member – has increased the pressure on the country to include methane in the Joint Statement with the United States at the Glasgow climate summit.63 Many of the initiatives launched in Glasgow have a similar, primarily normative character, such as the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use64 and the Inter­national Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition.65 There is a fundamental issue with initiatives such as this, however, in that they remain purely normative commitments and do not create any concrete incen­tives for compliance. If the goals end up not being met, this will further impede the credibility and potential signalling effect of common goals in inter­national climate cooperation, which is already under strain.

Mission Innovation

Mission Innovation is one of the many initiatives that have emerged since 2015 in the wake of the Paris Agree­ment. Today it consists of 24 members (23 states and the EU) and includes both developed and devel­oping countries.66 In the first round of the initiative, members committed to doubling their investments into the research and development of climate-friendly energy production technology by 2020. The initiative then entered a second phase. In total, the investments made available in the first round were to increase from approximately US$15 billion in 2015 to approxi­mately US$30 billion.67 This target was not reached, although there were significant differences between the individual mem­ber states. While the major­ity of member states have increased their invest­ments by 40–60 per cent, China has in fact doubled its invest­ment – from about US$4 billion to about US$8 bil­lion – over the agreed period.68

Mission Innovation is characterised by a clear thematic focus and a distinct, quantified target that makes progress traceable and verifiable. However, much like many of the initiatives that emerged during the course of the Glasgow climate summit, it does not include any compliance mechanisms that could ensure commitments are kept.69 Considering the differences in target fulfilment, it seems questionable as to whether the voluntary commitment alone and the associated normative pressure on the participating states are sufficient to account for the investments that have actually been made. This is illustrated by the example of China, whose additional investments in the period in question were also driven by economic growth and the significance of the solar industry70 for its economic and energy poli­cy. Al­though counterfactual, it is not unlikely that China’s considerable investments in renewable energy tech­nologies would have developed in a simi­lar fashion, even without membership in Mission Innovation.

However, this caveat, albeit not insignificant, should not be taken to mean that the initiative has been a failure. The example of Mission Innovation illustrates the potential positive side effects of pluri­lateral initiatives, which, although they fall short of setting economic incentives, nevertheless go beyond lip service. Apart from signalling climate policy am­bition, their benefit is primarily their coordinating function. This was perceived quite positively, as it facilitated regular exchange between different coun­tries.71 This exchange allows for drawing lessons about, for example, the effective institutional design of research funding and the conditions for successful seed funding to mobilise private capital.72 On the other hand, the lack of enforcement mechanisms means that Mission Innovation is not immune to broader developments in international climate politics. The temporary withdrawal of the United States from international climate cooperation under President Trump in 2017 gave observers cause for con­cern in this regard.73 The hope that the mechanisms of plurilateral cooperation will transcend such political dynamics cannot be realised with an initia­tive whose function is mostly focussed on coordination.

4 per 1000

The fact that coordination, evaluation, and exchange within the framework of plurilateral cooperation ini­tiatives are not necessarily mere by-products is illus­trated by the example of the “4 per 1000” initiative. This initiative is also one of the many to emerge in 2015 in the course of COP 21 in Paris. Initiated by the French government, the goal is to increase soil carbon sequestration by 0.4 per cent per year (4‰, hence 4 per 1000) – in particular through changes in agri­cultural practices – in order to partly offset man-made carbon emissions.74

The implementation and especially the evaluation of progress have proven to be a challenge; scientific and technical advisory bodies have been set up for this purpose.75 In principle, however, the initiative’s focus on only one aspect of negative emissions is an advantage. In terms of ambition, it is not intended to do any more or less than its mandate and design allow.

However, it is precisely this technical focus that turns out to be a decisive limiting factor in terms of reproducibility in other contexts. The initiative can be implemented without fundamental technical diffi­culties and does not entail any significant economic disadvantages or risks for the participating countries.76 Accordingly, there is the potential for positive spill-over effects for the implementation and evalu­ation methods developed as part of the initiative. However, initiatives such as 4 per 1000 do not address the fundamental obstacles to international climate cooperation, as these are usually not technical but political in nature. Where there are problems at the policy level that can be mitigated through technical exchange and coordination, such initiatives can help. Where divergent political interests are involved, they do not by themselves contribute significantly to the solution.

The G7 Climate Club

One of the most widely discussed initiatives of late is the climate club, which was proposed as part of the Germany’s G7 presidency in 2022. A draft outline was published by the German government already in 2021.77 This paper primarily proposes some ideas without elaborating upon them in detail. Nonetheless, three priorities can be derived. First, an explicit, joint minimum carbon price was planned. Second, in line with Nordhaus’ club idea, substitutive imports from countries without a comparable carbon price were to be disincentivised by means of a border adjust­ment mechanism in order to prevent the mere shifting of emissions (“carbon leakage”), protect club members from competitive disadvantages, and set incentives for cooperation for non-members. Third, potential future members were to be supported in their efforts to meet membership conditions.

At first glance, the G7 appears to be a promising incubator for such an endeavour. It comprises a small, relatively homogeneous group of economically strong countries. However, it was clear from the very beginning that an explicit carbon price, for instance via an emissions trading system, would not be fea­sible to negotiate with countries such as the United States78 and Japan.79 The Chancellor’s Office, how­ever, continued to push the idea, which originated in the Federal Ministry of Finance during the previous electoral term, and pursued it despite such obvious difficulties and open questions. The G7 partner coun­tries did signal their interest in a joint platform for advancing climate cooperation. However, at the minis­terial meetings in the run-up to the G7 summit in June 2022 at Elmau Castle, it became clear that the draft version would not be met with approval by the G7.80 The consultations with partner countries in the run-up to the summit proved to be insufficient. Styling the initiative as a club also caused some irritation.

A key question for a club founded by a group of the world’s richest countries concerns the inclusion of other countries. Being open to new members is an explicit goal of the club. This raises questions regard­ing the club benefits and membership conditions. Many developing and emerging countries are scep­tical of carbon pricing.81 Moreover, the declared inclusivity revealed a dilemma. By definition, a club offers exclusive benefits to its members. If it wants to be inclusive at the same time, it runs the risk of losing any inherent advantages that are supposed to incentivise membership.

The negotiation process leading up to the G7 sum­mit in Elmau did lead to an agreement, thanks to the flexibility during this phase. The club now consists of three pillars: policy coordination, industrial decar­bo­n­isation, and cooperation with third-party coun­tries. Details, however, have yet to be finalised and will con­tinue to be deliberated after the formal establishment of the club. As a result, the G7 Climate Club – origi­nally conceived as an ambitious transformative ini­tiative – is now primarily a “forum for discussion”,82 a basis for negotiations whose ultimate effectiveness for climate action is still unknown. A high degree of flexibility may be one of the potential advantages of plurilateral cooperation, and it can have positive effects on the ownership of the countries involved. The open-endedness of the process would indeed lower barriers for undecided countries to join. How­ever, in the trade-off between a smaller but more ambitious initiative on the one hand, and a larger but less focussed and impactful one on the other, the club has shifted considerable towards the latter. The G7 Climate Club is making the process of specifying its substance more difficult for itself by admitting new members. Having to negotiate the substance of the club with a larger number of players runs counter to the core idea of plurilateral initiatives, which is to find agreement more easily within a small circle.

The club falls far short of the expectations it had originally set for itself and, in the process, has taken up a lot of political resources

Reaching agreement required compromises at the expense of the desired level of policy stringency. In view of the economic power of the G7 countries, the coordination of common industrial standards that is now envisaged could potentially have an impact beyond the club members. However, the club falls far short of the expectations it had originally set for itself and, in the process, has taken up a lot of political resources. Moreover, the G7 is fundamentally a forum for exchange; the institutional consolidation of the club was therefore a challenge from the very begin­ning. An important question in this context was the extent to which Japan, which took over the G7 presi­dency from Germany in 2023, would be interested in continuing the project. To avoid this issue, the club’s terms of reference were rather hastily adopted in December 2022, drawing closely on the Elmau Dec­la­ration from July.83 Here, too, compromises led to further dilution. The outreach pillar, which encour­ages the club to cooperate with and support third-party countries, was recognisably characterised by a lower degree of commitment compared to the Elmau Declaration.84 Japan has, in fact, not decisively moved forward with the club idea, so the German government has essentially continued its coordinating role.

Renewables Club

The Renewables Club shows how far back the idea for plurilateral formats goes, not just in academic debate but also in practice. The Renewables Club parallels the G7 Climate Club, which was founded about ten years later, in a number of aspects. Both emerged from a German initiative, were clubs only in the sense of being a small group (instead of offering club ben­efits to their members), and both have (so far) avoided providing clear definitions for themselves. There was also a question from the very beginning with regard to the Renewables Club as to what extent the initia­tive could offer any additional benefits compared to already existing formats.85

The Renewables Club was founded in 2013 by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, which was in charge of international climate negotiations at the time. It was intended to provide a platform to advance the international energy transition (Energie­wende), which was already being pursued at the national level in Germany. The Renewables Club was founded by the EU members Denmark, France, Ger­many, and the United Kingdom as well as China, India, Morocco, South Africa, Tonga, and the United Arab Emirates.86

The agreed goals of the club were exceptionally vague.87 Concrete instruments and club benefits were not specified. The institutional anchoring of the club was also unspecified. Accordingly, for China, India, and South Africa, the attractiveness of membership lay primarily in the economic importance of the par­ticipating EU countries.88 Despite numerous public contributions to the debate at the time, which called for specifying an ambitious design for the club,89 it was not implemented in a form that would have given it any notable lasting significance in inter­national climate cooperation. Similarly to the G7 Cli­mate Club, the substance of the Renewables Club needed to be sharpened and its mechanisms clearly specified so as not to appear to be a broad declaration of intent.

Just Energy Transition Partnerships

The diversity of plurilateral cooperation approaches in practice can be seen in the Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs). They occupy a special role simply because of the inherent asymmetry among members. Selected individual partner countries receive financial support to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels for energy production, especially coal, and to provide social protection to those who are most affected by the necessary changes in the economy (Just Transition90). From the perspective of the recipient coun­tries, whose energy sectors are usually particularly coal-dependent, this arrangement offers financial sup­port for political and social challenges as well as the prospect of decarbonising their economic development pathways.91 For contributing countries, on the other hand, the partnership enables them to imple­ment emission reductions where it is most efficient to do so, and – in accordance with the principle of differentiated responsibilities and capacities92 – help ensure that the economic development of key emerg­ing economies is compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement.93

Four such energy partnerships have been launched so far, all with Germany’s participation. The JETP with South Africa, which aims to mobilise US$8.5 billion, was a particularly noteworthy outcome of the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow (COP 26).94 France, Ger­many, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the EU signed on to the partnership. This was followed by a partnership with Indonesia (US$20 billion), an­nounced at the G20 summit in Bali (which took place in parallel to COP 27), with the United States and Japan playing a coordinating role and the other G7 countries, Denmark, and Norway also represented.95 This was followed by yet another partnership of the same countries with Vietnam (US$15.5 billion).96 Lastly, an announcement was made in mid-2023 to launch a partnership between Senegal and France, Germany, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada (US$2.5 billion).97 The initial investment is expected to be followed by private investment to drive decarbonisation beyond the start-up phase, allow­ing the JETPs to develop further momentum.98

However, an energy transition is an extremely complex undertaking.99 The JETPs seem to be estab­lishing themselves as a new key format for results-oriented climate cooperation. But the partnership with South Africa, the first of its kind, has already revealed some of the challenges. Firstly, at the national level, it has become clear that some stake­holders are critical of the move away from coal in electricity production in light of the potential eco­nomic and employment impacts.100 These are precise­ly the issues that the Just Transition aspect of these part­nerships are supposed to address. To be successful, JETPs must be customised to the partner countries and take into account local economic structures and the technical and legal particularities of the energy systems.101 This challenge becomes even greater in the case of India – another potential partner country – due to its size and pronounced federalism.

The JETPs reflect some of the common structural and procedural challenges in international climate cooperation. They are explicitly declared to be part­ner­ships between equals. However, well-known asym­metries of interest between contributor and recipient countries, which are common in international cli­mate finance, are also evident here. Specifically, in the case of the partnership with South Africa, the main issue is over what financing instruments are to be preferred – subsidies or concessionary loans.102 Key issues such as this were initially excluded from the negotiations. This allowed for the presentation of the partnership with South Africa as an accomplish­ment during COP 26 in Glasgow. However, these issues now need to be addressed if the partnership is to proceed.

Practical implications for climate diplomacy

As a look at current and past phases of plurilateralism in international climate policy shows, the mere estab­lish­ment of cooperation initiatives does not mean that their promises will be realised. Experiences with recent initiatives, in particular, have highlighted a num­ber of implications for diplomatic practice that should be taken into account – especially in light of current challenges and developments – if plurilater­al initiatives are to be used effectively for advancing international climate cooperation.

Credibility and prioritisation

Leading by example in climate action does not neces­sarily imply the ability to entice others to cooper­ate.103 As the above examples have shown, there are considerable obstacles to negotiating incentives. Compromises that were meant to overcome these obstacles often dilute the initiative, undermining the very purpose of going small in the first place. As a result, plurilateral initiatives tend to fall short in prac­tice in terms of tangible incentives for cooperation. Empirical evidence, including from recent exam­ples, suggests that they often perform more of a co­ordinating function and that there is no immediate initiation of an emission reduction dynamic.104 How­ever, it is the explicit promise of plurilateral cooperation that it can make up for a lack of progress and effectively advance the implementation. Should promi­nent initiatives such as the G7 Club and the JETPs fall significantly short of expectations and promises, this will further impede the credibility of international climate policy and weaken the already shaken trust on the part of developing coun­tries. None­theless, developing countries and emerging economies must also ensure that their domestic cir­cum­stances are conducive to the successful im­ple­men­tation of international partnerships, as the recent example of the JETP with South Africa discussed above has shown.105

Founding new plurilateral initiatives is in itself not necessarily a net gain for international climate cooperation.

Given the pressure to succeed in terms of credibility, there are questions regarding the prioritisation of climate diplomacy efforts. Limited institutional capac­ities are typically seen as an issue with regard to poor­er, vulnerable countries106 – for example in connection to international climate finance.107 But capacities are not inexhaustible in developed countries either. This applies both to the coordination of actors, institutions, and processes at the national level and to efforts on the diplomatic stage. Delegations at climate negotia­tions have to prioritise among several issues and responsibilities – depending on staff capacities and the climate-related technical expertise available to them.108 New plurilateral initiatives for international climate cooperation cannot be realised without draw­ing on these capacities. Founding new plurilateral initiatives is therefore in itself not necessarily a net gain for international climate cooperation.

Reforming existing initiatives instead is a highly political and lengthy process with uncertain prospects of success.109 On the face of it, there may be an incen­tive to create a new plurilateral forum rather than to expand and develop an existing one. Moreover, the launching of a new initiative on the margins of a cli­mate summit – as was seen in particular at COP 26 in Glasgow – can be presented as a political success and evidence of climate policy commitment. In order to ensure the existence of new alliances, however, it must be considered on which institutional framework they should be built and how the necessary resources can be secured in the long term.

Trust and communication

Trust among Parties that goes beyond procedural trans­parency and compliance mechanisms is an impor­tant factor in multilateral negotiations.110 As cumbersome as the UNFCCC processes are, their permanence has the virtue of allowing for the for­ma­tion of familiarity among Parties that goes beyond formal compliance mechanisms.111 New alliances do not offer the same degree of familiarity. In order to help plurilateral initiatives succeed and avoid exac­er­bating the credibility issue, it is essential to set the right expectations from the outset and to make suit­able offers to partner countries that are in line with their interests and priorities.112 It is also essential to anticipate the perceptions of partner countries. In the German government’s outline for the G7 Climate Club, for example, the compensation of possible com­petitive disadvantages through carbon pricing was a key element (guaranteeing a “level playing field”).113 In the course of the process, however, this wording was excluded. Emphasising the benefits of mitigating economic risks for the G7 countries would have seemed rather self-serving from the perspective of partner countries.

Representation and legitimacy

The inclusion and consideration of the interests of developing countries is essential for the legitimacy of a perceived leadership role in international climate policy.114 Plurilateral initiatives must be perceived as complementary to the multilateral process, not in competition with it. Developing countries are par­ticu­larly affected by climate change but, with the excep­tion of large emerging economies, have cumulatively contributed little to it. This double inequality with inverse distribution of risk and responsibility115 is exacerbated by the fact that those countries also lack material bargaining assets. They are faced with the fundamental problem of negotiating with structurally stronger players.116 In practice, however, it turns out that structurally weaker negotiating partners can use the UN climate negotiations to their advantage, for example by forming coalitions or jointly building nego­tiating capacities.117 If the UNFCCC process – in view of the increased importance of plurilateral ini­tiatives – plays a much smaller role in the future, especially regarding mitigation, vulnerable countries will be denied the limited but at least established opportunities for participation in this process to a certain extent. They can only represent their interests in initiatives that they are a part of. Plurilateral ini­tiatives that serve to reduce the emissions of the largest emitters may comply with the UNFCCC prin­ciple of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). However, to the extent that the focus of international climate policy is shifting from multi­lateral negotiations to smaller initiatives, there is the risk that the interests of particularly vulnerable coun­tries will receive less attention. The issue that initia­tives are often shaped by countries of the Global North has already become apparent in the G7 Climate Club118 and the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda.119 Core issues for vulnerable countries are adaptation to cli­mate impacts120 and dealing with loss and damage,121 the latter of which played a key role at COP 27 in Sharm El Sheikh.122 Accordingly, the idea of plurilateral initiatives is viewed critically among diplomats with regard to their legitimacy.123

This problem goes hand in hand with the frustration and loss of trust on the part of the vulnerable countries discussed above, and it threatens to exacer­bate the situation. It is therefore all the more impor­tant to make clear the relationship of plurilateral initiatives to the Convention and the principles en­shrined therein. The principle of CBDR and country ownership must be respected.124 Furthermore, par­allel to the efforts in plurilateral climate diplomacy, commitments made and agreed processes must be adhered to, for example with regard to loss and damage finance and the Global Stocktake.125 It is crucial that cooperation initiatives from the Global North are not seen as exclusive and contrary to the interests of countries in the Global South.126


In view of the recent developments in international climate politics, plurilateral initiatives are associated with the hope of overcoming existing obstacles and more effectively advancing the implementation of the Paris climate goals. To be sure, there are clear differ­ences between individual initiatives in practice. In essence, however, there are usually three aspects involved. The comparatively smaller group of coun­tries that wish to lead by example in climate action simplifies the agreement process considerably com­pared to the multilateral process. These conducive conditions, in turn, allow for raising the bar and agreeing on more ambitious goals and stringent measures. Ideally, incentives from within the ini­tia­tive would have spill-over effects on non-members as well.

However, although plurilateral climate cooperation seems to offer a diplomatically feasible way for­ward, the promises of such a format do not automatically materialise. The negotiating of enforcement mechanisms often proves to be prohibitively difficult even in smaller cooperation formats, which in turn has implications for broader cooperation incentives and potential spill-over effects. Plurilateral coopera­tion initiatives can be important elements in the implementation of the Paris Agreement. In the right context, they offer a higher potential for political agreement. However, they are not a means to trans­cend the political challenges in international climate cooperation. For successful implementation, it is there­fore crucial to keep an eye on the procedural challenges that need to be overcome so that agreement on implementation can also be reached with like-minded partners within the initiative.

To begin with, it is important to keep in mind that plurilateral cooperation does not necessarily imply that the multilateral process is somehow less crucial. In the draft structure for its climate diplomacy strat­egy (Klimaaußenpolitikstrategie), which is to be com­pleted in the second half of 2023, the German govern­ment explicitly emphasises the goal of strengthening multilateralism. Neither is the German government interested in deprioritising the multilateral UN pro­cess, nor would that be recommended. Rather, pluri­lateral initiatives should always be understood as a complementary component. The question of how to make multilateral cooperation more effective will become even more important in light of the increased attention on plurilateral forms of cooperation. It is essential to keep in mind the interests of partner countries, especially from the Global South – includ­ing those with which one does not cooperate equally intensively at the plurilateral level. In order for new alliances such as the JETPs to establish themselves as both effective and, in particular, politically feasible, vulnerable developing countries must not be given the impression that they will not receive further sup­port from the developed countries due to the lack of a coal-based energy system to be decarbonised or for lack of global strategic or energy policy importance.

German and European climate diplomacy should focus on initiatives that are thematically focussed enough to be able to exploit the advantages of pluri­lateral cooperation within their specific framework. Often, the smaller format with a smaller number of members has the greater potential to effectively advance the implementation of the Paris Agreement in a way that is detached from the structural and acute challenges in international climate politics. The experience with the G7 Climate Club suggests that – similar to the experience with the Renewables Club – ambition and stringency on the one hand and open­ness and a high number of members on the other threaten to play off against each other. Initiatives that are broad in terms of membership and focus on joint target declarations, such as the Global Methane Pledge and Mission Innovation, can certainly have an important signalling effect and, in the right context, contribute to more effective coordination between the members. However, these will be undermined if it becomes clear that the targets are not being met – without any consequences for the member states. This would further exacerbate the credibility crisis in international climate politics that is already looming due to the compliance gaps in emission reductions.



German Federal Ministry of Finance (Bundesministerium der Finanzen)


Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Reactor Safety (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit)


Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism


Common But Differentiated Responsibilities


Conference of the Parties


European Union


Group of Seven


Just Energy Transition Partnership


Nationally Determined Contribution


United Nations


United States


United Nations Environment Programme


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change



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