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The International Renewable Energy Agency: a success story in institutional innovation?

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International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics Aims and scope Submit manuscript


This article interprets the role and significance of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in global environmental and energy governance. First, we conduct a comparative analysis of IRENA and other recent innovations in global governance, showing that IRENA stands out with regard to the timing of creation, speed of ratification, and focus of the mandate. Second, we identify three mechanisms through which IRENA can promote the global diffusion of renewable energy: (1) by offering valuable epistemic services to its member states, (2) by serving as a focal point for renewable energy in a scattered global institutional environment, and (3) by mobilizing other international institutions to promote renewable energy. Finally, we reflect on the conditions that could make IRENA’s policies a continued success and on the lessons that the experience with IRENA holds for other attempts at innovation in global governance.

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  1. ‘China to join International Renewable Energy Agency’, Press release, IRENA, January 14, 2013,

  2. Exceptions are Meyer (2012, 2013) and Van de Graaf (2013).

  3. For a different perspective see Ivanova (2009), who argues that UNEP’s functioning as an “anchor organization” for the global environment has been constrained by its formal status, governance, financing structure, and location.

  4. A similar kind of motivation seems to lie behind the new “Renewables Club” (or, in German, “Club der Energiewende-Staaten”) created on June 1, 2013. According to the German Minister for the Environment, Peter Altmaier, the launch of this club of ten “pioneering” countries shows that “[w]e in Germany do not stand alone with our Energiewende, but are a part of a strong group of leaders.” In other words, this new initiative too appears to be the continuation of domestic politics at the international level. The precise goal of the new Club is still somewhat vaguely defined as “to work together as advocates and implementers of renewable energy at global level,” although the Club is clearly also intended to support IRENA, which itself is a member

  5. While there is a large literature on why states ratify environmental treaties, and also some research into the temporality and sequentiality of these ratification processes (e.g., Bernauer et al. 2010), to our knowledge no aggregate data are available to compare the pace of ratification across (environmental) treaties. Therefore, we have only included a few treaties and conventions in Fig. 3. They were selected on the basis of availability of information, importance, and relevance as a point of reference.

  6. The figures come from the organizations’ respective websites. Both annual budgets include voluntary contributions and, in the case of the IEA, revenues from the sale of publications.



International Renewable Energy Agency


United States dollar


Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries


United Nations


Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century


United Nations Environment Programme


International Energy Agency


European Union


Carbon capture and storage


European Patent Office


Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development


Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Program


Global Bioenergy Partnership


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


Johannesburg Renewable Energy Coalition


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We are grateful to Frank Biermann, Jeff Colgan, Sander Happaerts, Timothy Meyer, and Sarah Van Eynde for commenting on earlier drafts. We also thank the editors of International Environmental Agreements and the anonymous reviewers for their advice. All interviewees are commended for their openness and contribution.

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Correspondence to Thijs Van de Graaf.

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Urpelainen, J., Van de Graaf, T. The International Renewable Energy Agency: a success story in institutional innovation?. Int Environ Agreements 15, 159–177 (2015).

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