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Fariborz Zelli

Fariborz Zelli

Professor | Principal Investigator BECC

Fariborz Zelli

Legitimacy and Accountability in Polycentric Climate Governance


  • Fariborz Zelli


  • Andrew Jordan
  • Dave Huitema
  • Harro van Asselt
  • Johanna Forster

Summary, in English

Polycentricity is characterised by institutional fragmentation as well as a new quality of interdependence where non-state and state actors are both regulators and regulated. This complexity raises new questions for democratic governance beyond the nation state. Against this backdrop, we first develop the argument that certain legitimacy and accountability challenges are inherent to polycentricity in general, with the policy field of climate change as a prime example. We discuss these challenges for both normative and sociological legitimacy and different forms of accountability (external, internal, networked).
We then illustrate an analytical research agenda on accountability and legitimacy dynamics for two sub-sets of polycentric climate governance: corporate climate action and minilateral climate clubs. For the first domain, we largely find limited normative legitimacy. Dominated by international actors and rational scientific understandings of sustainability, initiatives often exclude local discourses and critical voices. At the same time, the sociological legitimacy of private environmental governance remains fragile and in flux. Internal challenges arise as industry and civil society actors struggle over influence and policy outcomes, sometimes destabilising multi-stakeholder processes from within. External challenges include the legitimation politics surrounding creation of industry-sponsored competitor programs.
Likewise, we observe a considerable lack of normative legitimacy for the early days of climate minilateralism, i.e. roughly between 2000 and the Copenhagen summit 2009. This picture only changed with a new wave of climate clubs particularly targeted to developing countries. Still, the sociological legitimacy of climate minilateralism remains low, also due to the sheer ignorance of legitimacy audiences about most of these clubs.
We conclude our chapter with a short outlook on how to address legitimacy and accountability gaps in the light of the renewed role of the UNFCCC after Paris. We hold that the task should be to pragmatically identify fitting measures for every particular context of transnational climate governance.


  • Department of Political Science
  • BECC: Biodiversity and Ecosystem services in a Changing Climate

Publishing year





Governing Climate Change : Polycentricity in Action?

Document type

Book chapter


Cambridge University Press


  • Political Science


  • climate change
  • climate governance
  • polycentricity
  • Legitimacy
  • accountability
  • Kyoto Protocol




  • ISBN: 9781108418126