COP19: Sub-national governments are the rising stars of climate action

21 November 2013

COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, runs from November 11-22, 2013. As part of our involvement in COP19, Damian Ryan our Senior Policy Manager, is providing news and analysis as well as live tweeting. Today Damian reports from the third day of COP19's second week, where The Climate Group hosted a meeting for its States and Regions Alliance

Damian writes:

What role should sub-national governments play in international climate negotiations? For many years, the answer from national governments has generally been ‘not a lot’.

Despite the regular (and growing) presence of sub-national and city governments as observers to UNFCCC talks over the years, the process has remained firmly focused on national-level actions.

In some regards this approach has made a lot of sense. A complicated intergovernmental process involving 190 odd countries really doesn’t need further complexity by expanding it to other levels of government.

Domestic politics has also played a part. Some national governments, nervous about independently minded regions, have been loathe to provide space or recognition for them at the international level.

Although other national governments have happily recognized and encouraged their sub-national brethren, the overall situation has been one where regions and cities have been seen but not heard.

Change however is afoot, with potentially far reaching and positive consequences.

The power of text

If not for the first time, then certainly in a way that significantly boosts their profile, the role of sub-national governments is increasingly being recognized in key UNFCCC negotiating text. In draft text released earlier in the week relating to the 2015 global deal, Parties “welcome and encourage…adaptation and mitigation actions…by subnational and local governments…”.

This language is hardly revolutionary, but its inclusion reflects years of hard work on the part of sub-national governments to have their role in combating climate change recognized at the international level.

It also reflects perhaps an admission of failure on the part of national governments. After years of incremental progress in the negotiations, there now seems to be a creeping realization among national governments that they will need all the help they can get to deal with climate impacts that are no longer just distant threats.

Climate action leaders

The good news is that there is much that international negotiators could be inspired by and learn from sub-national governments.

For a variety of reasons, states, regions and cities around the world have not been waiting for a global deal to take action. These governments face the realities of climate change on the practical level; for them the issue is not academic but grounded in the need to protect communities, support businesses, diversify economies and create jobs.  

Today (20 November) at a meeting of The Climate Group’s States and Regions Alliance in Warsaw, the governments of the Basque Country, Bavaria, Brittany, Catalonia, Kwazulu-Natal, North Rhine Westphalia, Ontario, Quebec, Rhone-Alpes, Sao Paulo, Scotland, South Australia, Upper Austria and Wales, laid out their latest low-carbon initiatives.

From inter-regional carbon trading, to complete phase out of coal fired power; from comprehensive climate legislation to genuinely ambitious emission reductions for 2020 through to 2050; and from incentives for electric vehicles to dramatic expansion in renewable energy, it is clear that sub-national governments are at the forefront of global mitigation efforts.

The irony for the UNFCCC process is that after years of being the poor cousin to national governments in the climate diplomacy hierarchy, states, regions and cities are now the rising stars when it comes to substantive, demonstrable action.

Much remains to be done of course, and the actions that still need to be taken are by no means easy – a fact that sub-national governments themselves will be the first to admit. But crucially the vision and ambition for change is there.

Tomorrow, leaders from the sub-national government community will have the opportunity to share their vision and ambition at a special High Level Dialogue with Ministers on sub-national actions. Such an exchange at the UNFCCC is long overdue, but hopefully a sign of a partnership that is so essential to affecting climate action globally.

Related news:

COP19: Role of business at Warsaw in the spotlight, as new guide launched

COP19: Hurricane Haiyan puts ‘loss and damage’ front and center

Days before COP19 in Warsaw begins, read our overview

Image by UNFCCC


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