After Lima: The Future of Sub-National Climate Governance

As in the past, media coverage around the international climate negotiations which just concluded in Lima, Peru, focused almost entirely on the actions that national governments are taking to reduce, or at least slow increases of, greenhouse gas emissions. But while these actions are critical, in the short run some of the most ambitious and promising mitigation initiatives come from sub-national rather than national governments. In the United States, cities like New York and states like California have set considerably more aggressive climate policies than the federal government. Meanwhile, China, recognizing that its prosperous coastal regions are better prepared to adopt climate mitigation measures than are its poorer inland areas, has established pilot carbon exchanges in its seven most developed cities and provinces. In recent years, sub-national climate leaders have organized into networks like the C40 group of cities and the R20 organization of states, provinces and regions. But while these networks have played an important role in convening sub-national leaders, additional steps are needed to fully integrate sub-national players into global climate change.   

An important part of meeting this goal was achieved during the Lima talks with the launch of the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC), a collaborative effort of the World Resources Institute, C40, and several other organizations. The GPC builds on previous initiatives to provide a robust, standardized means of conducting comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventories, and reporting emissions reductions and mitigation efforts. By providing a common protocol that can be used by cities, regions, and communities around the world, the GPC equips sub-national climate leaders to accurately measure, report, and verify their emissions—a critical component of meeting national and international targets for reducing emissions.  Some 100 cities around the world currently employ some form of the GPC, and the number is set to grow following the protocol’s formal launch.

The GPC is a critical component of improving sub-national climate governance, but a much more important step remains to be taken: fully integrating sub-national actors into the international climate governance system. This system, which exists under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), includes a wide range of stakeholders, including the C40 and R20 networks, as observers, but in its decision-making consists entirely of nation-state parties to the Convention. Going forward, a better way must be found of integrating sub-national climate leaders into the UNFCCC—not as parties, but rather as distinct components and drivers of individual nationally-determined commitments to reduce emissions. If sub-national climate leaders can put forth ambitious commitments of their own, these might be leveraged to enhance the ambition of national-level efforts. 

There are signs that the idea of better integrating sub-national actors into the international climate governance system enjoys high-level support. During a speech in Washington, DC, in October, the French Ambassador for Climate Change, Laurence Tubiana, who will serve as host for pivotal climate negotiations set to take place in Paris in December 2015, said she believed it was critical to find a way of involving sub-national leaders in the UNFCCC architecture. Meanwhile, current and former leaders of major sub-national entities, such as former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, continue advocating for aggressive action on climate change. 

Several specific reforms could help to effectively integrate sub-national climate leaders into the international climate governance system. First, the UNFCCC Secretariat should develop formal procedures for recognizing and certifying sub-national climate actions, particularly those which involve emissions mitigation measures. Second, the Secretariat should host a database of these measures, helping to lend them both credibility and visibility. Third, the Secretariat should expand its existing efforts to convene special assemblies and gatherings of sub-national climate leaders in parallel with the formal negotiations between state parties. By taking these measures, the Secretariat can help to coordinate the efforts of sub-national actors, and further leverage their ambition to inject momentum into the international negotiations.