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Thursday 21st April 2016
Subnational climate plans: Less than the sum of their parts?
Guest Articles, Communities Contributor: Anu Jogesh

NAMAs, NAPAs, LAPAs, NAPs, INDCs, NAPCCs… The alphabet soup of climate action is enough to make ones head spin. The profusion of acronyms notwithstanding, this trend points to an important development – an expansion in the number of national climate plans and strategies over the last two decades undertaken by both developing and developed countries.

However these plans are likely to be the tip of the iceberg as sub-national climate plans and policies are now beginning to be drawn up around the world. These plans encompass a dizzying array of federal states, regions, provinces, counties, cities, and municipalities. 

Piecemeal policy and planning

Their drivers are equally diverse, spanning top down obligations, horizontal networks, as well as bottom-up motivation for action. Climate ambition in US states, for instance, has historically been a bottom up effort, emerging in response – almost dissatisfaction – to inaction at the national level. In Belgium, regions were asked to develop climate plans to apportion the country’s Kyoto targets, though ambition across regions vary.

In China, a stricter top-down process has emerged where provinces are allotted fixed climate commitments based on nationally driven targets for action. Finally, in cities across the globe, climate efforts have been largely driven by transnational networks and projects such asCities for Climate Protectionthe C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN).

A study examining 256 cities in 118 countries in 2013 found that cities’ affiliation with these global networks was strongly associated with their degree of integration into the global economy and global supply chains, and thereby their interest in a shared environmental responsibility. The ACCCRN project is different in that the model is not membership driven and the focus is on rapidly urbanising cities with greater scope to effect resilience mechanisms into new city initiatives and infrastructure development.

Are subnational plans effective?

So does this panoply of local initiatives add up to an effective response to the challenges posed by climate change? Unsurprisingly some scholars are sceptical of the value of such locally-driven action as a solution to a collective action problem like climate change. However, a majority of climate researchers and more recently practitioners view subnational units as ‘laboratories of experimentation’, receptive to bottom up initiatives and spry enough to adopt innovative solutions in their existing mechanisms.

These solutions once tested in localised settings have the potential to be scaled up nationally or to other regions with the potential for big climate gains. Moreover, adaptation practitioners realise that climate resilience is best built at the local level. Because climate change can exacerbate existing development challenges, often unique to different geographic and socio-economic contexts, sub-national initiatives allow governments to focus on home-grown solutions tailor-made to the local context.

Despite the current explosion in nationally and sub-nationally driven climate programmes and legislation, however, there is little evidence linking these policy efforts to actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as pointed out recently in the IPCC.

National and local: joining the dots

Even across differing country contexts, two challenges seem universal: Firstly, economy-wide implementation and mainstreaming climate action in development planning have not been fully realised. Problems of access to finance to scale-up efforts beyond bilateral and multilateral interventions, lack of government ownership of plans, and uneven capacity of stakeholders to address climate change are pervasive concerns. In addition, a failure to perceive climate change as a cross-cutting issue and not just an environmental concern continues to be a challenge. Delivering a plan therefore appears to be easier than implementing one.

Secondly, bottom-up efforts, however ambitious are not being translated into climate gains until they are meaningfully tied to the national policy framework. A recent study by the Indian-European Multi-level Climate Governance Research Network uses five case studies on sub-national policies in India and the EU to demonstrate that the extent of autonomy of local governments in a country does not always determine their appetite or inclination to innovate in developing climate plans. There needs to be a well thought out balance between the degree of central coordination and local appetite for action.

In the case of Belgium for instance, low levels of sub-national ambition on climate change is viewed as the outcome of a relatively weaker central government, which is unable to raise ambition beyond what is mandated internationally and by the EU. In Germany on the other hand, the Bundesländer’s [German states] ambitious renewable energy targets overreach the central government’s goals, but as a consequence, create a mismatch in energy production and distribution among various regions, and result in system inefficiencies. The country as a whole is, therefore, not able to fully realise the collective ambition and innovation of its Bundesländer.

In India, while the central government is keen to guide the states, the guidance takes the form of procedural information rather than helping states bridge capacity gaps and facilitate mainstreaming of climate action. As a result plans are incremental rather than transformational in scope, and states are not always equipped to innovate. A comparable pattern is seen in the relationship between states and cities in India, where limited devolution of powers and resources from Indian states to the cities thwarts city-level experiments for low carbon development.

Other empirical studies also note that while climate programmes are initiated in cities by transnational networks and projects, initiatives that have the buy-in of local authorities and higher-level government have a greater chance of being implemented. More often because they are designed involving government stakeholders and co-opt local priorities as well as political agendas.

The research on subnational action reiterates an important challenge of the multi-level governance of climate change. The ability of governments to trigger mutual adjustments of top-down and bottom-up strategies developed at the national and subnational level, in order to maximize climate policy outcomes and spur innovation at both ends. In other words subnational experimentation can only be effective when there is a well thought out balance between the degree of central and local coordination despite differing degrees of sub-national autonomy.


Detailed insights on sub-national policy planning and trends in India and the EU can be found in the following special issue: 

Anu Jogesh is the policy and governance lead for Acclimatise in India. She was also a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi where she worked on a three-year project examining State Action Plans on Climate Change in India and authored a chapter for the Handbook on Climate Change in India (OUP, 2012).