City and subnational climate governance

Subnational and urban policy-making can serve as a useful experiment and piloting opportunity for policies that may be developed nationally, as well as for underpinning climate commitments by mobilising resources and political support. Half of the world’s population now lives in cities and accounts for 80% of the world’s economic output and 70% of its energy use (Tsay & Herrmann, 2013). In many countries, rapid urbanisation is occurring because urban areas offer greater economic opportunities, especially in countries where rural livelihoods have declined.

However, without inclusive urban planning that considers the needs of the urban poor and the cross-sections therein (by gender, ethnicity, age, disability, etc.), the needs of certain populations may be promoted over others, potentially increasing existing vulnerabilities. Poorer urban populations are typically more vulnerable to extreme climate events such as storms or heatwaves because of greater exposure and fewer resources to take preventative actions or recover (Corfee-Morlot et al., 2009). In cities where the urban landscape and infrastructure are more conducive to flooding, lower-lying land is likely to be the least expensive. If disaster risk managers do not effectively make use of demographic and census data to better target early warning systems, these populations may also be disadvantaged by not receiving equitable access to timely information.

Issues of access extend beyond public services to include access to decision-making processes that shape planning, allocation of finance and disaster risk management. Urban mobility planning that does not emphasise equity and inclusion may result in transport options that do not prioritise non-motorised options or that are not safe, practical or affordable for poorer urban residents, who need to access jobs, healthcare, schools and other basic public services. This acts as a barrier to increasing adaptive capacity. Thus cities play huge and growing role in reducing GHG emissions, addressing structural drivers of vulnerability and implementing adaptation plans.

Cities are often more willing and able to experiment with climate policies, enabling adaptive learning and offering lessons that may be translated to the national level (Corfee-Morlot, 2009). Many cities have joined networks of city and subnational leaders to share learning, collaborate and exert greater influence on national and global scales. These include C40, Local Governments for Sustainability, United Cities and Local Governments and the Compact of Mayors. However, the degree to which municipalities are autonomous from the state or country and able to create and enforce policies governing energy, transport, land use, etc., varies by country. Cities with less direct power may still be able to influence national policy-makers.

As an example, the Compact of Mayors, which formed in 2014, seeks to directly influence national strategies by demonstrating success at the urban level. In June of 2016, it joined the EU Covenant of Mayors to form the Global Covenant of Mayors, encompassing 7,100 cities in 119 countries. The Covenant’s charter includes commitments to generate comprehensive plans, make key data available for reporting and develop ‘institutional political processes that make effective action possible by embedding climate action into municipal processes, structures, and policies’.

In evaluating the institutional response capacity of Mexico City and Santiago, Romero-Lankao et al. (2013) define the key components as level of cooperation and coordination between actors, effectiveness of the legal framework, availability and use of information and mechanisms through which actors participate in decision-making. They find presence of scientific and international organisations in urban policy-making contexts helps place climate on the policy agenda. Participation in transnational networks (like those listed above) has provided urban leaders with access to resources, knowledge and international visibility. However, fragmentation and lack of horizontal and vertical coordination within the country still constrain city leaders (ibid.).

While this study finds some conflict at the urban level between climate and economic development goals, Gouldson et al. (2015) find that cities could make short-term economic gains from implementing carbon mitigation policies, particularly energy efficiency. The authors suggest the primary reasons these gains have not been realised have been lack of information, lack of supporting national policies and inadequate finance. A recent New Climate Economy report suggests international institutions can help cities establish integrated municipal authorities to address cross-cutting challenges and develop investment-ready projects (Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, 2015). Krause’s (2011) assessment of cities in the US that participated in the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement found the primary determinants of participation were population, education level, political orientation and economic structure, but also whether neighbouring cities joined the agreement, indicating some influence of social and political networks.

Climate action at the subnational level is not confined to cities. State and provincial governments have established policies, including California and Quebec’s cap-and trade-mechanism and the Compact of States and Regions, that have committed to reduce absolute emissions by 55% by 2050, or a projected 44.7GtCO2e (44.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent). As of 2016, the Compact counts 44 members from 18 countries.

As shown above, subnational governments ‒ both state and city, in developed and developing countries ‒ have acted as climate policy innovators and created networks to increase ambition, share learning and tools and elevate their influence in global dialogues. They may be more successful than their national counterparts in some cases, given fewer constituencies and greater political homogeneity, a more streamlined policy-making process and more sensitivity to the threat of extreme climate events in densely populated areas that often have high asset values. At the same time, enabling national policy that provides coherence across governance scales, assistance in accessing climate finance and coordination with national and other subnational institutions are widely viewed as critical to more effective urban climate governance.