Policy Entrepreneurs: Key Players in Bottom-up Climate Policy

Jonas Schoenefeld |

As the top-down, United-Nations driven target setting approach to international climate through the Kyoto Protocol approach has increasingly been called into question, many have begun to highlight the advantage of bottom-up approaches. Whereas the top-down approach is analogous to divvying up a pie among different countries, the bottom-up approach means that each country contributes some ingredients to see whether together they can make a pie (i.e., reach sufficient greenhouse gas emission reductions to avoid dangerous human interference in the climate system[1]). The recent Sino-American climate deal exemplifies an approach where countries put forward their own climate pledges in the absence of a comprehensive international goal. As a result of this, climate change policy-making is likely to become increasingly polycentric, meaning that different actors at different levels take climate action simultaneously.[2] But who will lead the fight against climate change in such a decentralized environment?

In this blog post, I argue that polycentric climate governance relies increasingly on what political scientists call ‘policy entrepreneurs’. In his original formulation[3], John Kingdon defined policy entrepreneurs as “advocates who are willing to invest their resources—time, energy, reputation, money—to promote a position in return for anticipated future gain in the form of material, purposive, or solidary benefits” (p. 179). Climate policy entrepreneurs are thus particularly skilled individuals and sometimes institutions who purposefully create and exploit political opportunities in order to advance climate policy. While certainly not the only potential source of policy development and change, policy entrepreneurs arguably play a key role in polycentric climate governance.

In a recent paper[4], Elin Lerum Boasson and Jørgen Wettestad propose that there are broadly two types of policy entrepreneurs: ‘tortoise entrepreneurs’ that work over long periods of time to create political ‘windows of opportunity’, and ‘carpe-diem’ entrepreneurs that take advantage of policy windows when they emerge. Drawing on the role of policy entrepreneurs in EU carbon capture and storage (CCS) policy, Boasson and Wettestad explain how European Commission officials and the French and German governments, with a view to their presidencies of the Council of Ministers, worked over  several years to highlight climate urgency and the need for swift action. Once this policy window was created, members of the European Parliament and a range of interest groups joined in to create a CCS policy framework, which drew on funds from the EU Emissions Trading System to fund early demonstration projects. Hence, in some circumstances, policy entrepreneurs can indeed create political windows of opportunity and exploit them to further policy.

But there are also limits to entrepreneurship, as Boasson and Wettestad explain in another, book-length account of EU climate policy.[5] Existing political structures can make it difficult for policy entrepreneurs to succeed. For example, they argue that decentralization in the EU’s construction sector prevented policy entrepreneurs in the European Union – specifically the European Commission – from creating a Europeanized energy policy framework for buildings. Failure or at least very slow and painstaking progress also happened in the case of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). Even though the European Commission has been a strong entrepreneur in the creation of the EU ETS, it struggled to address the low carbon price brought on by low demand for emissions allowances following the international financial and economic crisis.[6]

Taken together, as climate policy-making is becoming more decentralized and polycentric, policy entrepreneurs are likely to become more important because the onus will be put on lower-level actors to drive ambitious policy proposals. These entrepreneurs will operate not only at the EU or national level, but also in regional and city settings.[7] Policy entrepreneurs are also likely to play roles in emerging transnational climate governance arrangements, which extend far beyond the reach of any one nation state.[8] Their successes or failures will clearly depend in part on their individual initiative and skill. In many cases, institutions such as the European Commission[9] or the European Parliament[10] or governments may also be able to act as policy entrepreneurs. But external developments, such as this year’s climate summit in Paris or climate-related events, will continue to provide a crucial background against which policy entrepreneurs will be working to open and exploit critical windows of opportunity.

[2] Cole, D. H. (2015). Advantages of a polycentric approach to climate change policy. Nature Climate Change, 5(2), 114-118.

Ostrom, E. (2014). A polycentric approach for coping with climate change. Ann. Econ. Finance, 15, 71-108.

[3] Kingdon, J. W. (2003). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc.

[4] Boasson, E. L., & Wettestad, J. (2014). Policy invention and entrepreneurship: Bankrolling the burying of carbon in the EU. Global Environmental Change, 29, 404-412.

[5] Boasson, E. L., & Wettestad, M. J. (2013). EU climate policy: industry, policy interaction and external environment. Ashgate Publishing.

For my review of the book, see Schoenefeld, J. J. (2014). EU Climate Policy: Industry, Policy Interaction and External Environment. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 22(2), 208-210.

[6] Wettestad, J. (2014). Rescuing EU emissions trading: mission impossible?. Global Environmental Politics, 14(2), 64-81.

[7] Bulkeley, H., & Betsill, M. M. (2005). Cities and climate change: urban sustainability and global environmental governance (Vol. 4). Psychology Press.

[8] Bulkeley, H., Andonova, L., Betsill, M. M., Compagnon, D., Hale, T., Hoffmann, M. J., … & VanDeveer, S. D. (2014). Transnational climate change governance. Cambridge University Press.

[9] Laffan, B. (1997). From policy entrepreneur to policy manager: the challenge facing the European Commission. Journal of European Public Policy, 4, 3, 422-438.

[10] Collins, K., Burns, C., & Warleigh, A. (1998). Policy Entrepreneurs: The Role of European Parliament Committees in the Making of EU Policy. Statute Law Review, 19, 1, 1-11.