Much is being made about this fall’s COP21 talks on climate change, which, if successful, could accelerate greater cooperation on reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. So far, the collective response of countries has been encouraging, from the United States’ declaration of goals to those recently issued by tiny Grenada. To date over 60 countries have submitted proposals; far more are expected to do so before the conference in Paris launches in late November.
The reality, however, is that it will take more than national governments to push the needle on climate change if we are to believe the foreboding data put forth by the scientific community.
Therefore, the announcement today that over 20 regional and local governments, which together comprise 10 percent of the world’s GDP, have committed to new reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is a remarkable step forward. By the time COP21 opens in Paris, 20 additional regional governments are expected to add their names to this agreement.
These “sub-national” governments, which span the Americas, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, say their collective climate targets could prevent the emission of as much as 7.9 gigatons of CO2 by 2030 — an amount of carbon larger than the amount emitted in 2012 by the United States, the world’s second highest greenhouse gas emitter. According to this agreement’s signatories, participating governments will meet these goals through a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.
If these governments were combined into one country, they would collectively form the world’s fifth-largest nation by population. Their influence sends an important signal. No global leader wants to be outshone by someone at the local level — which is why the states and regions that are parties to this agreement are hoping this chess move will nudge more national governments to submit an actionable plan this fall as COP21 draws even closer.
So while much is made about which countries are being proactive on the delivery of climate-related goals and which ones are dragging their feet, the reality is that changes underway at the lower levels of government can have just as much, if not more, impact.
California, of course, has long been a leader on challenges related to environmental stewardship, clean energy development and climate disruption — in part because current Gov. Jerry Brown has been forward-thinking on these issues, dating back to his first run as the state’s chief executive back in the 1970s. The Australian Capital Territory, home to the country’s capital, Canberra, recently set a target of generating 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Even tiny La Réunion, known more for its role in solving the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, has taken action on transforming its energy portfolio from what is currently reliant on coal-fired power plants.
Much of the effort leading to this agreement is the result of the Compact of States and Regions, a United Nations initiative that will continue to push for emissions reduction commitments after the COP21 Paris summit. Established in 2005, this network has worked with regional and local governments on a variety of programs, including those focused on phasing-out coal, drafting renewable energy initiatives and establishing clean technology infrastructures.
In a written statement, Québec Premier Philippe Couillard, who is also the North American co-chair of the Climate Group’s States and Regions Alliance, said, “This (agreement) proves yet again that the work of state and regional governments is not only supporting a transition to a low carbon economy, but accelerating it.”
And that sums the political reality in many countries. While many nations may not have as loose of a federation as the United States or Canada, local control is often the modus operandi across the globe. While the federal government may take the lead on foreign or monetary policy, regions and municipalities are often left to their devices to find the most pragmatic way forward for their local economies — whether it involves environmental regulation or harvesting new forms of energy.
The result is that many local governments have made huge strides on climate that can offer inspiration, and lessons, to countries across the world. Take a look at Bavaria, which at one point boasted three solar panels for every resident. Scotland has moved forward with its move toward an economy powered 100 percent by renewables, regardless of whether it separates from the United Kingdom or not. Spain’s Basque Country, which enjoys the highest per capita income in that country, has embarked on a long-term plan to groom a more low-carbon economy. Down in South Africa, KwaZula Natal Province, a major manufacturing center, has launched programs to ensure 100 percent of its population has access to safe energy by 2030.
So, while the news will focus on what some of the world’s largest countries will announce during Climate Week NYC and the road to COP21, decisions made at the local level are what could make the largest differences on climate change in the long term.
Image credit: Rainer Lippert via Wikimedia Commons