CTN Blog: "Addressing climate change by harnessing sub-national governments"

By Charmaine Rodrigues

In less than a month, the 51st session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be held in Monaco, from 20 to 23 September. On 23 September, UN Secretary General Guterres will also host the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York. UN member states are also actively considering a proposal to develop a Global Pact for the Environment in response to a 2018 UN General Assembly resolution setting up a working group to analyse the scope, parameters, and feasibility of such an international instrument.

As countries come together to discuss options for more effectively tackling climate change, it is becoming increasingly clear that action requires the involvement of all levels of government, from the global to the very local. The UN Secretary General has already specifically observed that “We need clear moves not only by national Governments but also by other actors such as subnational governments, businesses and investors”. It is relatively unusual to find international institutions acknowledging the role of sub-national governments in this way.

As with most internationally driven projects, early action on climate change focused on national governments working together collectively to agree global benchmarks and strategies (for example, through the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change, 1997 Kyoto Protocol and 2015 Paris Agreement). However, over the last decade, climate change action increasingly has run into ideological difficulties at the national level, making it more difficult for many countries to develop nationwide climate change policies and programmes.

By contrast, sub-national, state and local governments have increasingly moved to tackle climate change.  This is just as well:  of the top 10 global emitters, six are federal countries (while Indonesia has very strong decentralisation and the EU28 also operates as a form of multi-level government). Arguably, these are the levels at which many environmental problems are best tackled in any event. These also are the levels at which community consensus about problems and the appropriate reactions to them can most effectively be forged.

Even where countries are not formal federations, many have implemented decentralized government systems, in which local governments have the powers and resources to implement critical programmes. Sub-national government responsibilities often include, for example, natural resource exploitation and management, the natural environment, waste disposal (including recycling) and aspects of energy all of which have implications for climate change. Picking up on this theme, in 2014, the 5th IPCC Assessment Report was informed by a major climate change mitigation report which included a specific chapter on national and sub-national climate change policies and institutions, describing the different approaches taken in federal and decentralized systems to implement climate change activities.

Many of the world’s largest economies are federal systems, with empowered sub-national governments. Of the G8 countries, Germany, the United States, Canada, and Russia are all federations, while Great Britain operates as a union with regional legislatures. A 2018 OCED report on climate change action in cities and regions showed that preliminary estimates indicate that in the 30 OECD countries for which data are available, cities and regions were responsible for 55% of spending and 64% of investment in selected sectors that have a direct implication for climate change over the period 2000-2016.

OECD Climate Related Investments

There are an increasing number of sub-national governments taking action climate change. As of early August 2019, it was reported that 935 jurisdictions in 18 countries have declared a climate emergency. Populations covered by jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency amount to 206 million citizens. In Australia, where the sub-national climate emergency declaration strategy was launched in May 2016, 30 jurisdictions have declared a climate emergency, representing roughly 3 million people and 12% of the population. Thirty national and 22 sub-national governments, alongside various non-government organisations and businesses, are members of the “Powering Past Coal” alliance. The aim of Powering Past Coal is to “advance the transition away from unabated coal power generation”. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the City of Melbourne and the City of Sydney are all members, even though the Australian Government is not.

Australian sub-national governments have taken a strong lead in trying to tackle climate change. The Australian Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications specifically recognised in a 2018 report on climate change that “As the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action (NAGA) observed: ‘Local governments are on the frontline when dealing with the risks and impacts of climate change…” Already, six of seven Australian States, plus the ACT have set their own emissions reduction targets, and four states and both territories have set their own renewable energy targets (with the ACT and Tasmania committed to 100% renewables by 2020 and 2022 respectively). The ACT has established a $12 million Renewable Energy Innovation Fund, South Australia ground-breakingly invested in the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery installation to address power outages and the Victorian Government has provided funding to support a commercial electric vehicle manufacturing facility. In 2017, Victoria also updated the Climate Change Act 2010 to ensure Victoria has a world-leading legislative foundation to manage climate change risks and drive the transition to a climate resilient economy with net zero emissions by 2050.

In the US, although the Federal Government announced its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June 2017, Governors from 24 states and Puerto Rico have formed the US Climate Alliance, which pursues state government-led climate action, quite a major development in a country with strong sub-national governments. The US Climate Alliance represents 55% of the U.S. population, 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and an $11.7 trillion economy. US Climate Alliance members have all agreed to implement strong climate policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement. In September 2018, California passed legislation requiring that 100% of its electricity be carbon-free by 2045. The Californian governor’s office also issued an executive order committing the entire state to be carbon-neutral by 2045.

There is also much more attention being paid to the critical role that local city governments have to play in relation to climate change. The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (GCM) brings together leaders of cities around the world to take collective and individual action to address climate issues. The GCM platform recognizes that more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, that cities account for more than 77% of global CO2 emissions and that cities consume more than 66% of the world’s energy. In response, already there are 9,176 cities committed to the Global Covenant of Mayors to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change. One of GCM’s key initiatives, Invest4Cities, aims to raise $200 million for technical assistance for 400 cities to develop and implement city-based climate action plans, mainly in the Global South. Twelve major cities including London, Paris, Los Angeles and Cape Town also promised in 2017 to buy only zero-emissions buses from 2025 and to make major areas free of fossil fuel emissions by 2030 to protect the environment

These developments are positive from the standpoint of climate change. But they are positive also from the standpoint of multi-level government. They offer topical confirmation of the long-established claim that federalism and other systems of significantly devolved government offer the potential for innovation and can operate as useful checks and balances. They also show, more clearly than before, how central governments in large and diverse states can find it hard to reach consensus, even on major problems, and so become incapable of tackling them effectively.  These experiences offer insights into the uses of multi-level government and the need for the responsibilities of all levels of government to be respected. They also raise questions about whether and if so, how the international level should acknowledge and take into account the possibilities of sub-national levels of government in the future.