On 23 September 2022, the Transatlantic Climate Bridge (TCB) and the Woodrow Wilson Center co-hosted an Urban Diplomacy Roundtable on transatlantic subnational climate cooperation. The event gathered a group of experts across civil society, think tanks and academia to discuss the merits of transatlantic subnational partnerships in combatting the climate crisis and how an initiative like the TCB can best build and maintain such connections.
Diplomacy between cites, counties, states and regions is critical to ensuring that diplomatic doors between countries are left open throughout changing political cycles at the national level. Such efforts are more important now than ever, especially for the climate crisis. As we head into COP27 with the message “from ambition to implementation,” cities have a critical role to play as the venues where many of the policies discussed at international climate negotiations will play out.
The subnational level has become increasingly important in keeping international climate diplomacy alive. Many conversations on the climate crisis ended during the Trump administration, which pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement and reversed course on much of the climate and environmental progress in the United States. Instead of engaging on climate via the White House, those four years relied on subnational efforts – through initiatives such as the “We Are Still In” coalition – to keep parts of the US in the fight against climate change. Building subnational-level partnerships across the Atlantic today will be critical for future-proofing international climate diplomacy moving forward.
Cities play an important role informing not only local, but also national and international policymaking. They possess expert knowledge on how citizens are directly affected by policies from all levels of governance and understand what is needed for current and future policies to be successful. This useful transfer of knowledge does not just flow from the city level up within the same country, but is also highly effective when extending between cities in different parts of the world. Through urban diplomacy, city administrations can learn from real experiences of successful policy implementation in other regions, particularly when sharing similar profiles. A city-to-city partnership where each side is comparable in population and size, economic scale, or business and industry sectors can help cities learn from the best (and worst) practices from others and, in so doing, accelerate the implementation and impact of policies back home.
Subnational partnerships can take a variety of shapes and do not have to adhere to a strictly “reciprocal” relationship, whereby City A provides something to City B and vice versa. The benefits of urban diplomacy don’t exist in a vacuum, and as such a more relevant concept is that of “diffuse reciprocity”: a willingness to contribute to expertise and experience without demanding immediate reciprocal benefits in return. Indeed, through diffuse reciprocity, urban diplomacy participants know that experience shared from City A to City B contributes to the overall knowledge-sharing milieu, which eventually can return to City A via an external third city. Building diffuse reciprocity networks between the US, Canada and Germany, or Europe more broadly, will strengthen diplomatic ties and create a rich pool of best practices for climate policy implementation.
An effective subnational partnership can be established by matching cities and regions by area of interest and profile, as well as the type of desired support, such as capacity development, coordination and cooperation, finance and funding, and/or support for implementation actions. The economic opportunities of the green transition are especially fertile ground for subnational partnerships, and de-industrializing regions stand to particularly benefit from climate action. Cities previously dependent on fossil fuel jobs can capitalize on their structural change to rethink local jobs, infrastructure, and spaces – changes which can provide co-benefits beyond the immediate eye, even serving to strengthen democracy. By connecting with cities with similar backgrounds on their green transitions, this economic turn can be sped up.
Urban diplomacy efforts can also connect local administrators to a variety of external support. Subnational governments, while acting as the fora where policymaking takes place, can benefit from external technical expertise, for example from relevant initiatives (such as the TCB), think tanks, and universities. The role here is two-fold. Firstly, cities may not always have the expertise needed for policy implementation in-house. Secondly, city-level actors are already at capacity time-wise with their daily tasks of running their departments, and, although keen to learn from others in an urban diplomatic environment, might not have the time resources to commit to such partnerships and exchanges. External actors can help both deliver project-specific expertise whilst alleviating time strains on city representatives who are already over-capacity and (often) under-funded.
The German city of Dortmund serves as an example for successful transatlantic partnerships. Through the TCB, Dortmund has been enabled to continue to collaborate with the cities of Vancouver in Canada and Pittsburgh in the United States. The three cities have shared lessons learned on topics ranging from making food systems more sustainable to decarbonizing their transport sectors. Further, Dortmund and Pittsburgh signed a Memorandum of Understanding for a partnership on innovation and climate this September. As former coal and steel economies, both cities have undergone significant structural changes and developed into hubs for business, science and innovation, making a partnership between them ripe for practical and realistic collaboration on next-steps for policy implementation.
Urban diplomacy will play an increasingly bigger role in the international climate policy landscape. Cities are the ones who have to implement the climate measures to keep the planet on a Paris-aligned pathway, and by connecting with other local and regional jurisdictions, these policy front-runners can become faster and more effective. And continued conversations around implementation, will help keep the momentum.