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Think Global, Act Local: The Role of Regional Actors in Climate Protection

By Franz Untersteller

While the US’s withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty by Donald Trump is a setback, subnational actors can fill some of the void. Regional states in the US, from California to Minnesota, are pushing ahead with their climate policies and forging international climate alliances. Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s only Green-led regional government, has played a particular role in promoting an ambitious climate agenda at home and abroad.

Climate change is a global challenge. Its consequences impact on everyone, all over the world. It’s been clear for a long time already that climate change is a cause of catastrophic weather events, such as drought and flooding – and thus also of the global streams of refugees and of crises around the world. This situation is going to get worse if nothing is done.

Consequently climate change is a global responsibility which no nation state should be allowed to shirk. In this sense, the Paris Agreement is a breakthrough. For the first time, all the states of the world pledged to contribute to protecting the climate and to limit global warming to considerably less than 2 degrees Centigrade, and to aim for 1.5 degrees. That is a very ambitious goal, but it has now been adopted. The Paris Climate Agreement is the global benchmark for climate protection by which our efforts to limit global warming and to mitigate the effects of climate change will have to be measured over the coming decades.

The fact that the President of the United States of America proposes to withdraw his country from this alliance is not just a trifling problem. Donald Trump is quite consciously playing off selfish and short-term perceived U.S. interests against global solidarity and sustainability. That sends out a disastrous message, and it represents the abandonment of responsible politics.

States such as China, Canada, and Russia, as well as the European Union, have reacted to this and have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. But it is clear that it will be incomparably more difficult to slow down climate change without the United States of America. If the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world pulls out, then no matter how committed the rest of the global community of states remain, it represents a dilution of the global effort to reduce climate change which is not to be underestimated.

An international climate alliance for regional actors

But Donald Trump’s announcement to isolate the USA in terms of climate policy does not automatically mean the end of all climate change policy in the United States. California and Minnesota, as well as major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are not adopting Trump’s position but instead propose to continue pursuing ambitious policies of climate change mitigation and adaptation. These regions are determined not to let up in their efforts. And climate change has of course long been very apparent in the USA, with extended droughts in California, the threat posed by rising sea levels to Florida and many other areas of the US Atlantic coastline, and dramatic storms.

In total, 18 federal states and cities of the USA have now signed the so-called Under2MoU (MoU=Memorandum of Understanding).[1] This term refers to the biggest sub-national alliance against climate change in the world. It was established in 2015 by the German State of Baden-Württemberg and the State of California to demonstrate, as major leading industrial regions, their global responsibility for climate change mitigation. A fundamental concept of the Under2MoU alliance is that effective mitigation policies must be locally based, that is, within political units that are smaller than nation states. Thinking globally, acting locally, and learning from each other – this applies also and especially to climate protection, which all of us can contribute to. For it is in the regions and the cities that concrete measures will be introduced and implemented. For example, measures to expand renewable energy use or resource-efficient production, to improve energy performance through the retrofitting of buildings, or to promote sustainable mobility. In this way many small measures can accumulate to create a hugely significant outcome. The first projects in developing and emerging countries are already being supported by private and public foundations and by funding programmes such as the International Climate Initiative.

The Under2MoU now comprises 177 partners in 37 countries over six continents. They all subscribe to the goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by at least 80 percent compared to the reference year of 1990, or reducing per capita emissions to two tons per year. By this they aim to contribute to achieving the Paris climate goal of keeping global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius. Specifically, the agreement commits the signatory regional states and cities to linking and optimising their policy activities on energy efficiency, transport, resource efficiency, and science and technology. In addition to practical mitigation measures, the Memorandum of Understanding includes declarations on the adaptation policies that will be needed.

Baden-Württemberg’s climate strategy

Baden-Württemberg has been setting an example on mitigation and adaptation for several years already now. For example, climate protection has been given legal force, and is thus treated in the same way as other legally-protected public goods such as nature conservation. This gives climate protection the status it urgently requires in terms of its global significance. Climate protection cannot be treated as an indulgence; rather, it is an obligation for the whole of society and an ongoing task. The law stipulates in particular the targets adopted by the state and the path by which they are to be achieved.

By 2050 Baden-Württemberg aims to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions across the state by 90 percent compared to 1990, and by 2020 by a quarter.

In this context, necessary strategies and measures have been adopted within the so-called integrated energy and climate protection concept (‘Integriertes Energie- und Klimaschutzkonzept’, IEKK). The IEKK includes more than 100 measures to avoid and reduce CO2 emissions. The measures cover areas like the electricity supply, private household, industry, trade and services, transport, state, and agricultural and forestry sectors.

The state’s function as a role model in climate protection is also enshrined in the law. In line with this role, the state administration aims to be operating in a broadly climate neutral way by 2040. This will require massive investment in the energy retrofitting of public buildings, climate-friendly procurement policies, green IT, and – not least – an approach to business travel by all employees which is as environmentally friendly as possible.

The first interim audit of the progress made towards a climate neutral state administration shows that Baden-Württemberg is on track. But it also shows that considerable efforts are still needed towards climate neutrality. Although the administration has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent since 2010 there remains considerable room for improvement in the fields of efficiency and energy savings. In climate-friendly mobility, too, the big improvements have yet to be achieved. That is why the state government has recently set in motion a reform to the regulations pertaining to public service travel costs in the state. In addition, it wants to introduce a compulsory carbon offsetting scheme for flight-related CO2 emissions for the entire state administration.

Germany and the EU must set a progressive climate framework for regional actors

As regards the climate protection targets for Baden-Württemberg as a whole, it looks likely that these will be missed, by two or three percent from our target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by one quarter by 2020. This means, firstly, that efforts need to be increased in the area of climate protection. But it is also evidence of the dependence on German and on European climate policy. In many areas the regional states simply do not have the legal competence, and to some degree they are in the hands of Brussels and Berlin. Just one example: without a properly functioning European emissions trading system including realistic CO2 prices, our efforts in Baden-Württemberg to invest in energy efficiency and thus in climate protection will reach their limits. And without a regulatory framework providing incentives at the national level, one will not get very far in Baden-Württemberg in retrofitting old and energy inefficient building stock. And this is despite the fact that Baden-Württemberg is the only federal state that promotes climate protection through regulation in at least one area affecting the building stock, with our Renewables and Heating Act for replacement heating systems. Similarly, the nationwide cap on the expansion of renewable energy and the lack of a fixed timetable for phasing out fossil power production represent obstacles to a more ambitious climate protection policy in a region such as Baden-Württemberg.

Baden-Württemberg does all it can at the state level, introducing support programmes, offering guidance and advice for companies and for communities and citizens, investing in research and development in efficient technologies, and promoting the expansion of renewable energy provision in electricity supply and heating. And it has also developed an adaptation strategy to find ways of cushioning the inescapable effects of climate change. But no matter what a region such as Baden-Württemberg undertakes, Brussels and Berlin are setting the substantive framework for climate protection policy.

It is beyond dispute that Europe has to develop more ambitious plans if it is not to fail in its aspiration to lead the world in climate protection. And it is clear that the Federal German government must do more if it is to meet its 2020 climate protection targets and to fulfil its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Precisely when the tempo will be picked up in these areas remains open. So it is all the more important for the regions not to sit back and wait. The longer and more complex the proceedings at the nation state level, the more important sub-national alliances like the Under2MoU become.

 

[1] For more information see: http://under2mou.org/

Think Global, Act Local: The Role of Regional Actors in Climate Protection