30 October 2023
Cities, regions and states are increasingly critical to keeping international climate goals within reach, and they have also stepped up to fill the void left by nation states when climate action at the federal level stalls. At the same time, they often have limited resources to engage internationally, lacking international offices or having limited experience with international climate networks.
On September 20 the Transatlantic Climate Bridge dove into the topic of subnational climate diplomacy at our event titled “City, State & Global Diplomacy - Bridging the subnational and international in climate foreign policy” as part of New York Climate Week. Through dialogue with subnational and national legislators, as well as representatives from international networks, the event shed light on how climate policymakers interact with one another across governance levels and what benefits come from stronger cooperation between the subnational, national and international. Key takeaways include:
- Horizontal subnational diplomacy (cities and regions connecting directly with one another) yields significant learning-by-doing spillover effects both within a country and across borders;
- Vertical subnational diplomacy (subnational jurisdictions connecting directly with national and international fora) ensures the highest levels of decision-making are informed by on-the-ground realities;
- All governance levels should engage with international networks such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability in order to build strategic relationships that are mutually beneficial and geared towards climate impact;
- International climate policymaking should more directly engage with and include perspectives from the subnational level, for example in the formulation of Nationally Determined Contributions.
Cities bear the brunt of climate impacts, and their responses can serve as innovative examples for others to follow. In the City of New York, the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project increases the climate resilience of Lower Manhattan, a necessity after significant climate-intensified flooding in the city, explained Brady Hamed, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the New York City Mayor's Office of Climate and Environmental Justice. The project integrates flood protection directly into affected communities and is funded jointly by New York City as well as the federal government. Indeed, the city leverages federal funding in various ways, from large-scale transportation projects via the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to solar energy via the Inflation Reduction Act. Collaboration with partners at various levels of government is a key strategy, including at the city-to-city level, Hamed added, citing New York’s recent inspiration from Los Angeles on an innovative approach to low-emission zones.
Local governments also play a critical role in shaping international cooperation, emphasized Katja Dörner, Mayor of Bonn, Vice-President of the Association of German Cities and ICLEI Co-Chair on Climate Action. Periods of strained bilateral relations at the federal level are especially crucial times to turn to urban diplomacy at the subnational level. Initiatives such as the Urban Diplomacy Exchange, with its focus on cities, are pivotal mechanisms to maintain global collaboration. Bonn exemplifies the success of such exchange – as a host to various federal ministries as well as a vibrant civil society, Dörner’s city directly connects the local, national and even international with the city playing host to the UNFCCC. With her extensive involvement in city networks and advocacy roles, Dörner serves as a bridge between local interests and higher levels of governance, which she uses to advocate for sustainable policies and initiatives.
Beyond informing international climate action vertically, cities can also do so horizontally. Direct dialogue across the Atlantic helped the city of Hoboken overcome extensive damage from Superstorm Sandy and become more resilient to future flooding, explained Ravi Bhalla, city Mayor. After the 2021 severe water damage, Hoboken initiated a partnership with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as with experts in the Netherlands to create the Rebuild by Design initiative, which aims to break the cycle of destruction and rebuilding to create a resilient city model for flooding that can be replicated globally. The project received funding from the federal government, the state of New Jersey and the city of Hoboken. Bhalla emphasized that involvement from local residents was key in the design and implementation of the project, which was instrumental to its success. Hoboken is visited by delegations from around the world who are keen to follow its climate action examples.
Such vertical and horizontal connections can be facilitated networks such as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. With over 2,500 local and regional governments dedicated to sustainable urban development, ICLEI is ideally positioned to make these strategic connections, which are increasingly critical to informing international climate discussions, emphasized Gino Van Begin, ICLEI Secretary General. As underscored by cities and mayors stepping in after the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement under President Trump, local leaders play an important role in pushing forward global climate action, and there is urgent need for an even stronger subnational focus in key areas like transport, buildings, infrastructure, waste, and energy. And COP28 presents the perfect opportunity to do so – parties to the Paris Agreement will be updating their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) based on the outcomes of the Global Stocktake. Some of the world’s largest emitters – China, the United States and India – have incorporated urban components into their climate projects, and these countries can serve as examples for how to design a catalog of recommendations for other countries to use subnational action as a core part of their update to their NDCs.
National leaders also recognize the importance of subnational perspectives on climate action. Last year, the United States created an office in its State Department dedicated to the subnational level. As Special Representative for City and State Diplomacy, Ambassador Nina Hachigian leads the State Department’s engagement with local officials, both domestically and abroad. Her office aims to listen to and elevate the voices of local leaders, encourage local US engagement internationally, and integrate local perspectives into the State Department’s work on trans-national challenges, in which the climate crisis features prominently. Ambassador Hachigian pointed out that US cities are where the country’s climate action is being rolled out, making them engines for innovation and problem-solving that, when shared abroad, can speed up the global energy transition.
Germany similarly benefits from listening to local leaders on climate, and vice versa. Cities oftentimes face limitations on resources and expertise, explained Dr. Vera Rodenhoff, Deputy Director General for International Climate Protection and International Energy Transition at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. She sees the federal government as playing a crucial role in overcoming these limitations. Germany’s National Climate Initiative helps anchor climate action at the grassroots level, and initiatives such as the City Climate Finance Gap Fund builds up the capacity of cities to drive climate-friendly urban development through a cooperation with financial institutions and city networks. Such efforts enable a stronger integration of cities in international climate fora, which must do a better job of incorporating local expertise in the decision-making process. Of particular importance in this regard, emphasized Dr. Rodenhoff, is bringing city voices into the formulation of Nationally Determined Contributions.
Across all levels of governance, there is widespread agreement that local action and expertise on climate is critical to ensuring national and international climate negotiations are informed by on-the-ground realities and lead to effective and implementable climate policies around the world. Though there have been promising developments in this area, national and global leaders must do more to bring in their local counterparts and ensure their voices are elevated to the highest levels of policymaking.