Are cities and regions helping nations to gain steam on stronger climate goals?

Yunus Arikan

Are cities and regions helping nations to gain steam on stronger climate goals?

Originally posted on June 7, 2021, on

Yunus Arikan from ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, explains how all levels of government play a role in international climate negotiations.

When the Conference of the Parties meets in Scotland this November for COP26 – assuming that they will, in some form or fashion – all eyes will be on the ambition levels of the revised national climate plans that are a part of the Paris Agreement.

This meeting of the annual climate conference is where countries are being asked to bring forward ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) that will lead to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. The Paris Agreement, which will turn six years old this year, was the moment that aimed to put us on a global trajectory towards limiting the world to 1.5 degrees of warming. It also was the place where local and regional governments — cities, towns and regions — were also delivered into the global climate movement.

Before the Paris Agreement, everything for non[1]national governments was voluntary. Climate action at the local level was, in some sense, a bonus. With the Paris Agreement, everything changed. The Paris Agreement specifically calls out the role of all levels of government, making it a duty for local governments to participate in the goal to reach climate neutrality by 2050. This means that the success in achieving the Paris Agreement — which we must, for the sake of humanity and the planet — lies with all levels of government. This must be a true multilevel success.

The most successful national governments engage with local & regional governments

Multilevel engagement to advance climate ambition can happen in a number of ways.

The case of Japan is steeped in a deeply-held practice of multi-level and collaborative climate action. Since before the Kyoto Protocol was first introduced to the world, cities, and prefectures in Japan have been reporting climate actions and deepening relationships between the federal environmental leadership and subnational leaders.

Over the last two years, hundreds of local and regional governments in Japan have committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. Led by Japan’s Minister of the Environment and Climate, H.E. Shinjiro Koizumi, this past April, at the U.S.-hosted Climate Summit, Japan announced it would be cutting emissions 46-50% below 2013 levels by 2030, with strong efforts toward achieving a 50% reduction. Just a week before this summit, the U.S. and Japan together “recognize(d) the critical importance of subnational government action in achieving our climate goals” and agreed to “collaborate to promote action globally to recognize, support, and accelerate subnational climate action.”

But the contributions of cities alone should be enough to inspire national governments to act. Susan Aitken, Leader of the Glasgow City Council, speaking with ICLEI’s CityTalk blog in April 2021, points out that “the Scottish government has a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 and 100% by 2045.”

Complementing these goals, she says “we in Glasgow want to get to net-zero by 2030. And the reality is that Scotland isn’t going to reach its targets if they’re not delivered in Glasgow first. So we need to be the vanguard of change.”

This past April, the United States submitted its second NDC. The NDC was created with significant inputs from stakeholders across all levels of government, recognizing that “local governments contribute substantially under the United States federal system to national efforts to reduce emissions.” It looks to be the most ambitious, advanced, and comprehensive commitment in relation to multilevel and collaborative climate action that has been submitted so far.

Elsewhere in the world, cities are collectively leveling up national ambitions. In Korea, collective action by local governments are inspiring national commitment. In June 2020, 226 local governments collectively declared a climate emergency. A month later, 17 provincial and 63 local governments launched an alliance for carbon neutrality and urged nationwide action for carbon neutrality by 2050. In September, 98% of national assembly members adopted a resolution urging action on the climate emergency. One month later, President Moon Jae-in officially announced Korea’s intention to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. On 24 May 2021, all local governments in Korea committed to climate neutrality by 2050, which increases expectations for their engagement in the upcoming South Korean NDC over the next couple of months.

The Global South also has a role to play in emissions reductions, especially when it comes to local and regional government collaboration.

In 2019, ICLEI joined forces with NDC Partnership to support the Climate Action Enhancement Package (CAEP) which delivers targeted, fast-track support to countries to enhance the quality, increase the ambition, and implement their NDCs. Seven countries – the Dominican Republic, Peru, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Gambia, and Mozambique – are working with ICLEI to actively engage at the local and regional level through training of public servants on climate policies, climate assessment, and climate reporting and in dialogue with national governments.

In the Dominican Republic, nine municipalities developed in-house capacity on climate finance and policies to design ambitious climate projects. Local governments are now able to better attract and access financial resources for their low-emission and climate[1]resilient projects, as well as contribute to the goals of their federal NDC. The federal government of the Dominican Republic has designated its approach to the NDC as “shared leadership” on climate action amongst all levels of stakeholders.

The CAEP currently works with more than 50 national governments in the Global South, with more than half have reported that they are incorporating an engagement element for subnational governments.

Multilevel action is the new normal

As countries have made new commitments or discussed the commitments they will make in advance of COP26, it has become clear that the engagement of subnational stakeholders is the new normal for building both an ambitious national commitment, but also one that is achievable. The commitments and actions that local and regional governments have already taken, make the commitments of national governments realistic and the achievement of those commitments, possible.

Cover Photo Credit: © Konstantin Shishkin