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The fight against climate change: a matter for subnational governments!

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23 November 2021
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The much-awaited COP26 has come to an end after long negotiations. The final outcome document, also known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, has been met with lukewarm enthusiasm even by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who stressed the need to accelerate action to be able to stay within the global temperature rise of 1.5°. There are no major changes compared to the objectives agreed in Paris in 2015 - except for more defined midterm goals. Indeed, good news is that participating States reaffirmed their commitments, while recognizing that "the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5° compared with 2°".

To a certain extent, this recognition mirrors the concerns raised by global protesters and young activists, who have unabatedly asked for immediate urgent action to keep the worst effects of climate change at a bay. However, concerning the need to accelerate climate action, the document is disappointing in many respects, including the fact that last minute changes, driven by China and India, led to the amendment of one of the most commentated sentences of the outcome document, which calls for accelerating efforts to “phase-down” rather than to "phase out" coal power.

Less discussed however are the references both to urging climate change integration “into local, national and regional planning” and the important role of non-State actors, including "local and regional stakeholders…in contributing to progress towards the goals of the Paris Agreement". These references are in my view an important step forward of the Glasgow Climate Pact. It is true that the fight against climate change requires global vision and global commitments, hence the major role played by States and international negotiation rounds. However, implementation is currently one of the biggest failures of the UNFCCC framework and one of the aspects that needs to be addressed urgently if we want to avoid major climate disasters. While implementation is expected primarily at national level, my view is that at subnational levels it does happen but it should happen more - that is, at the level of federated entities, regional authorities, Autonomous Provinces, and similar. Cities are currently more mobilized and visible at the international level, but the crucial role of subnational governments, especially in federal and regional states, is mostly neglected both in negotiations and by academic and non-academic commentators.

To fill this gap, the Eurac Research Institute of Comparative Federalism and the Universities of Trento and Innsbruck have joined forces under the project "Climate change integration in the multilevel governance of Italy and Austria". This project, of which I am leader, focuses on subnational governments as central players in the integration of climate change considerations in those policy sectors where they exercise legislative powers. The reasons for this focus relate mainly to the fact that subnational governments hold powers in most of the sectors either impacted by climate change or sectors that directly affect national and international mitigation and adaptation goals. Our project has been financed under the Research Südtirol/Alto Adige program of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano/Bozen, to explore how integration is realized in Italy’s Autonomous Provinces of Bolzano/Bozen and Trento and Austria’s Länder Tyrol and Vorarlberg with a particular focus on transport, energy and water, and spatial planning policies.

One of the questions we aim to respond to is what are the institutional factors that may prevent or facilitate climate change integration at the subnational level, in terms of both policy-making and implementation. In this respect, we hypothesized that horizontal and vertical coordination among policy-makers, public participation, information dissemination, political and administrative leadership, and dedicated funding are decisive factors for ensuring the effective integration of climate change in subnational policies.

Since the study of policy documents alone would be inconclusive in addressing these questions, the project team has conducted more than thirty interviews in the abovementioned study areas, with the aim of unravelling possible informal arrangements that would facilitate a more expedient integration of climate change, and thus better implementation at subnational level. The guiding criterion for the mapping of interviewees was to achieve a balanced representation of both the abovementioned relevant sectors and institutional factors.

While research results will be available with the publication of an edited volume published by Brill next year, Giada Giacomini (Eurac Research), Niccolò Bertuzzi (University of Trento) and Alice Meier (University of Innsbruck) will comment on the results of the recently concluded interview rounds in dedicated blog posts to be published on Eureka! in the next weeks. As expected, coordination and participation were described as crucial aspects by the interviewees, and the interplay between these factors has revealed some important differences in the territories analyzed. I invite you to stay tuned. Long last the role of subnational governments in the global fight against climate change!

Federica Cittadino

PhD in International Studies (2017, University of Trento), Federica is Senior Researcher in Environmental Law at the Institute for Comparative Studies, Eurac Research. Her research focuses on the legal governance of the environment, especially concerning biodiversity law and water law. She wants to contribute to the debate about how to divide environmental powers across different governance levels in ways that truly promote the protection of the environment. Federica is also an avid reader of novels, a movie connoisseur and a loving mum.

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