Local Governments, Climate Change and Multi-Level Governance

Transformative local climate action is essential as cities both significantly contribute to climate change and suffer from its consequences. A new study explores how different multi-level climate governance instruments can support the realisation of local climate mitigation and adaptation.

Two thirds of the world’s population – 6.3 billion people – are projected to live in urban areas by 20501. As the cities that will house this growing urban population will be built in the next few decades, the world is facing an unprecedented opportunity to respond to climate change through urban transformation. Transformative local climate action is essential as cities both significantly contribute to climate change and suffer from its consequences.

On the one hand, cities account for approximately 70 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, even though only 54 percent of the world’s population currently resides in cities2. This disproportionate share of GHG emissions results from the concentration of people, economic activity, industry and infrastructure in urban areas and the associated higher energy consumption levels3. Thus, local governments have substantial potential for climate change mitigation. Housing and transport policies, heating and lighting in residential buildings, urban planning and infrastructure development are some of the key leverage points for reduced GHG emissions in urban areas that are often under the mandate of cities, municipalities and other subnational government entities. To avoid dangerous climate change, far-reaching transformations will be needed in all of these areas.

On the other hand, the risks that arise as a result of climate change “for people, assets, economies and ecosystems” in urban areas are also projected to increase in the coming decades with more frequent and severe extreme weather events4. Such hazards – including for example storms, flooding, landslides, air pollution, heat waves, droughts, and sea level rise – are amplified for those living in exposed areas or without access to essential infrastructure, such as slum dwellers. While natural variations in climate and seasonal weather patterns have always affected cities, these phenomena are aggravated by human-induced climate change.56 Local government functions, services and infrastructure for “water, energy, sanitation, transport and communication” will moreover be profoundly impacted by climate change risks.

Local governments have always played a role in the international climate regime. However, in recent years their capacity to influence climate governance and implement their own local climate actions has increased. Against this background, there is increasing recognition of cities’ potential to contribute to the achievement of the goals of the Paris Agreement. This landmark agreement commits the 175 countries that have ratified it or acceded to it to date to implement actions that:

  • limit the increase in global average temperature to well below 2̊C, with a view to limit temperature increase to 1.5̊C above pre-industrial levels,
  • increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development,
  • make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate-resilient development (Paris Agreement, art. 2).

While references in the Paris Agreement to the role of local governments in addressing climate change and achieving these objectives are limited,7 the prominence of cities in the climate negotiations has nonetheless been increasing. For example, governments and international institutions have supported subnational and non-state climate action as a strategy to encourage agreement on an ambitious treaty at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (COP 21) and to support the achievement of their own mitigation and adaptation goals8. COP 21 was also the occasion for the launch of the Global Climate Action Agenda (GCAA), which is intended to catalyse implementation and boost cooperative climate action by governments at all levels, businesses, civil society organisations and others. Moreover, at COP 23 local and regional leaders adopted a commitment to climate action – the Bonn-Fiji Commitment of Local and Regional Leaders to Deliver the Paris Agreement at all Levels. The signatories commit, inter alia, to strengthening their own climate action and address climate change in a manner that is coherent with other international agendas, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They also urge the Parties to the Paris Agreement to collaborate with all levels of government in its implementation.

Cities can make a significant contribution towards keeping climate change below 2 ̊C91011. While the estimated contributions of local governments and other non-state actors to addressing climate change differ , some have estimated the global potential for urban greenhouse gas emissions reductions to be around 3 gigatonnes carbondioxide (CO2) equivalent annually until 2030, which amounts to about one quarter of the gap between the commitments in the current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of national governments and the target of keeping global warming below 2̊C12.

However, current local climate action remains far below this potential. Recent years have therefore seen active discussion on effective frameworks for multi-level climate governance to help cities fully harness this potential for local climate action, thus contributing to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the NDCs.

The concept of multi-level climate governance assumes that different levels of government are mutually dependent on each other when it comes to implementing the Paris Agreement. For example, national governments rely on regional and local governments to help implement national climate strategies.

Conversely, local and regional governments are affected by the legal, institutional and financial instruments and frameworks put in place by higher levels of government, which may support – or obstruct – local climate action.1314

Against this background, the present study explores the following question:

How can different instruments for multi-level climate governance support the realisation of local climate mitigation and adaptation potentials?

The aim of this study is not to prove that multi-level climate governance – or urban climate governance – is good and necessary. We assume this to be true. We also do not seek to make any claims about urban climate governance leading to (or being symptomatic of ) a reconfiguration of authority, where national governments are delegating more responsibilities (and corresponding capabilities) to lower levels of government. Multi-level climate governance may be associated both with a decentralisation of authority (e.g. where there are substantial differences in local priorities regarding mitigation and adaptation measures), or a recentralisation of authority (e.g. where there are economies of scale). It may also take place in very different contexts – states where municipal authorities have significant autonomy, as well as states where local autonomy is more limited. This study therefore discusses examples of multi-level climate governance instruments and frameworks representing a range of different political contexts.

Lisa Lebershausen

Lisa Lebershausen

Lisa Lebershausen holds an M.A. in International Development Studies and completed the trainee program with GIZ in India where she worked on urban environmental management and climate change issues. In Colombia, she supported a foundation focusing on sustainable urbanisation. Since March 2015, she is a GIZ Advisor for cities and climate change to the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB).
Lisa Lebershausen

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