Climate Summits Should Accelerate Subnational Action

Are climate summits successful in orchestrating effective subnational action? There is no easy answer to this question. For example, the 27th UN Conference of Parties (COP), billed as the Implementation COP, is making important progress in facilitating dialogue among states and non-state actors—but not enough. Thus far, the only subnational announcement coming out of COP27 commits just $3 million for furthering the subnational cause. Similarly, in ClimateWeek NYC, 60 states and regional governments came together to share experience and boost their leverage. Yet limited calls to action were taken to bolster an integrated role for subnational entities through, for instance, strategic collaborations with peers, the private sector, or financial institutions. Subnational governments remain the local implementors of global climate action, and climate summits could do more to empower the substates. Only then can the international community accelerate emission reduction.

Summits should move beyond merely demonstrating current achievements. They have the potential to nurture an environment conducive for the states to institutionalize peer engagements beyond bilateral exchanges. Subnational collaboration could persuade the states to explore new approaches, fill governance gaps, and develop progressive policies. Only then the subnational efforts can give room to nations to raise climate ambition.

Why Bother about the Subnational?

In an inflationary and energy crisis environment, as nations reconsider their climate commitments, a bottom-up climate regime could become a strong driving force for more progressive emission reduction policies. Substates are agenda setters, executioners, and enforcers, as they retain first-hand knowledge of the local consequences of climate change. But the subnational leaders may not always be incentivized to invest in climate action amid socioeconomic concerns about job disruption, stranded assets, and loss of tax revenues. In this context, summits can offer direct subnational connections with thought leaders, facilitate exchange of mutual inspiration, and nudge reluctant substates toward collective multilateral climate action.

Substates can create political conditions necessary for more ambitious climate action through their political promises, regional networks, and committed partnerships. For instance, in the face of the withdrawal of federal support for the Paris Agreement, California and other like-minded U.S. states forged the U.S. Climate Alliance to uphold U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement. Similarly, Mumbai became the first South Asian city to detail a net-zero roadmap. Examples of California and Mumbai offer firsthand templates of subnational leadership.

Subnational entities are not recognized as formal parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change but are noted as a key global system for upscaling climate action. Several international networks exist to incentivize and support subnational climate action, including Under2 Coalition , C40, and ICLEI. However, these networks are relatively homogenous and fragmented , with limited inter-network coordination. Climate summits can provide a rare interface between the international and the subnational climate regimes, inspiring greater engagement and providing a platform to announce strengthened climate commitments. Further, summits such as ClimateWeek NYC and the COP could mutually reinforce each other by mobilizing subnational action consistently and systematically.

Why Should the Subnational Bother?

Substates can enable change regardless of federal leadership gaps, but they need to be empowered. Climate summits can be the ideal venue for nurturing dialogues and strategic linkages between national, subnational, business, and international organizations—thus improving substates’ access to finance, technology transfers, research, and innovation.

Subnational entities could leverage climate summits to lend a voice to underrepresented groups, for instance, by mobilizing more participation from developing countries. For example, urban areas with disadvantaged communities are more vulnerable to climate risks and should have a formidable voice in unpacking the solutions for loss and damage. Second, states could use membership to relevant international networks to gain access to international expertise and pool resources to strengthen climate action. Third, subnational governments can create collaborative relationships with like-minded peers and progressive businesses to better compete in the global economy. And lastly, states should showcase achievements and establish regional leadership by participating in climate action monitoring tools relevant to the summit.

Looking Ahead

Climate summits could provide the necessary supplementary contributions to the intergovernmental negotiations under the COP by continuing to engage subnational actors and inspire greater climate action. Here are a few opportunities that could be explored within the realm of the summit functions:

  • Climate Finance Marketplace: Subnational entities remain constrained in accessing capital markets not only for low-emission technologies but also for existing high-emission infrastructure, which is relatively young. Summits could host a marketplace to connect investors, donors, technology providers, and subnational entities to match investment-grade projects and finance. This addresses the pressing need for subnational entities to partner with the private sector and financial institutions.
  • National-Subnational Interface : COP provides a limited interface between national policymakers and subnational entities. The summits should foster linkages between best practices in subnational action and governmental policymaking at national and international levels. Summits should encourage more tailored modes of engagement for issue areas and relevant countries. This will allow the local entities to have a clear vision of long-term actions, tools, and support to implement a climate intervention effectively.
  • Monitoring Mechanism: The summits should use their secretariats and monitoring mechanisms to track initiatives prompted by subnational linkages systematically. This institutional robustness could cultivate meaningful subnational collaborations that endure beyond a climate summit.
  • Peer-to-Peer Collaboration: Summits offer ample opportunities for direct connections to learn from other states that are solving similar challenges and accelerating sustainable solutions. Translating these opportunities into tangible outcomes will require summits to nurture a process conducive for states to institutionalize peer engagements proactively.

The need for mobilizing global resources and partnerships across public, nonprofit, and commercial sectors at the state level is now more critical than ever. But the ultimate success of the multilevel climate governance is in sustaining momentum beyond climate summits.

Neelima Jain is deputy director and senior fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Neelima Jain
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies