Global Insider: Subnational Cooperation on Climate Change
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed an agreement with his counterparts in Acre, Brazil and Chiapas, Mexico, to cooperate on efforts to counter climate change. In an e-mail interview, Harriet Bulkeley, a professor in the Department of Geography and the Durham Energy Institute at the University of Durham, discussed subnational cooperation on climate change.
WPR: How extensive is subnational cooperation on climate change?
Harriet Bulkeley: Perhaps surprisingly, there is no clear answer to this question. We know that city and regional governments have cooperated in developing responses to climate change since the early 1990s, but the level and extent of this effort has not been documented in a systematic way. At the city level, there are several organizations working specifically to foster international collaboration in addressing climate change. There is also cooperation on the level of regional governments, as well as more-focused initiatives, including cooperation between U.S. states and Canadian provinces. These examples are perhaps the most high-profile evidence of the growing involvement of subnational governments in cooperative efforts to address climate change, though it is likely that other activities are taking place under the radar in more-localized initiatives. Nonetheless, such collaboration still involves only a very small proportion of the total number of municipal and regional authorities worldwide.
WPR: What is the significance of California's agreement with Acre, Brazil and Chiapas, Mexico?
Bulkeley: The agreement sets out to explore the potential for using so-called REDD mechanisms, where emissions of greenhouse gases are saved by avoiding deforestation and forest degradation, enhancing forest carbon stocks and managing forests sustainably, within California's proposed cap-and-trade emissions-reduction scheme. Its significance is two-fold. First, along with the Governors' Climate and Forests Task Force, of which the three members are a part, it offers one example of how North-South cooperation in addressing climate change might be garnered. While subnational efforts to address climate change have long included participants from both North and South, this is one of the first to examine how the benefits and burdens of addressing the issue could be shared. Second, subnational efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have traditionally focused on energy use, planning and transportation. In moving the agenda on carbon-offsetting forward, this agreement promises to be both novel and controversial, for it paves the way for the inclusion of REDD-based carbon offsets within a "compliance" carbon market. Providing different arenas and mechanisms for trial REDD implementation will be one powerful way through which to gain experience for designing and implementing international agreement on this issue.
WPR: How well can subnational cooperation substitute for international cooperation on climate change?
Bulkeley: Posing subnational cooperation as an alternative to international cooperation belies the ways in which they are deeply entwined. For example, recent estimates suggest (.pdf) that the world's 50 largest cities produce approximately 2.6 billion tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent, "more than all countries, except the United States and China." Any agreement reached internationally will require action at the subnational level. Likewise, while cities and regions may be the locations where greenhouse gases are sourced, such emissions are the product of complex social, economic and political processes taking place globally, nationally and locally. Because of these interconnections, international agreement requires subnational cooperation and vice versa.
Research suggests that, while the growing experimentation with subnational climate-change responses is a result of a growing disillusionment with the international process, it is reliant on continued forms of international cooperation. For example, in the case of California, Chiapas and Acre, cooperation has been spurred by the emergence of carbon offsetting, carbon markets and the idea of REDD, all of which stem from the international arena and without which any subnational cooperation would be unthinkable. Ironically, then, subnational action on climate change is reliant on both the failure and the success of international cooperation, and it is likely that the fine balance between these two extremes will dictate the nature and extent of future subnational cooperation in this field.