For the last two decades, climate talks, and their top-down multinational approaches, have largely failed to curb rising temperatures. Since then, a number of subnational actors (provinces, cities, businesses, and civil society organizations, among others) have sought to tackle climate change from the bottom up. For example, at a summit in New York last year, various subnational associations pledged to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Around 75 mayors from around the world, recognizing that cities account for some 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, signed a Mayors Compact to accelerate ongoing efforts to shrink their carbon footprint. And major civil society organizations and businesses also signed various pledges on a range of initiatives, from expanding energy efficiency to halting deforestation.

California is a leader when it comes to electric cars. The futuristic Aptera sports an aerodynamic design and a 100 miles per gallon range, February 13, 2009.
Mike Blake / Reuters
These initiatives are promising, but they will not do enough. According to at least one study, the subnational initiatives agreed to at last year’s summit have the potential to reduce emissions by only a fifth of the required reduction needed to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius—a threshold that if exceeded, may trigger fiercer storms and increased droughts. Subnational progress is limited because ground-up climate diplomacy has largely operated on an independent track from international diplomacy. The risk with these parallel approaches is that ground-up goals will not be incorporated into top-down ones, which risks marginalizing their efficacy.

Unlocking the potential of subnational climate action will require integration of subnational and international initiatives. And the two entities that can bridge that gap are California and Germany—two of the world’s pioneers when it comes to climate policies. Both are on track to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050, the level of reduction that the world must achieve in order to stop temperatures from rising another two degrees Celsius.  California Governor Jerry Brown recently pledged to reach 50 percent renewable power in the state by 2030, from just over 20 percent today; German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently reaffirmed her vision for Germany to meet all of its power needs with renewable energy by 2050 (the country is around the 30 percent mark today). By contrast, OECD nations on average use only 10 percent renewable energy. (All examples exclude large hydropower.)

Because California and Germany have both subnational and national characteristics, they enjoy broad respect from cities, provinces, and nations alike. In this way, they can “lead from between” and bridge the two levels of diplomacy. Both exert a high level of influence within much larger political contexts—the United States and the European Union, respectively—and exemplify how subnational action can elevate national ambition. Both are also among the top ten global economies, able to move markets with policy. Already, California’s aggressive vehicle fuel economy standards have been adopted at the national level, and it single-handedly pushed automakers to produce electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles through its zero emission vehicle regulations. For its part, Germany pushed the European Union to pledge to emission reductions of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. It can also claim most of the credit for kickstarting the global solar panel industry through its Feed-in Tariff incentive program. Governments that once criticized California and Germany for far-fetched policies now look to them for tactical guidance.

Unlocking the potential of subnational climate action will require integration of subnational and international initiatives. And the two entities that can bridge that gap are California and Germany—two of the world’s pioneers when it comes to climate policies.

The place to push for this approach and merge local and international efforts is at the December UN Climate Conference in Paris. This conference is already poised to make progress, having evolved from the top-down framework of the past to a more bottom-up model in which nations propose their own targets. California and Germany can complete the transformation from a top-down to a bottom-up paradigm by advocating for the inclusion of local action plans in any Paris climate agreement. Furthermore, they should push for a framework that encourages subnational actors to work constructively with national governments to scale up local innovations to meet and elevate national emission reduction goals.

Ideally, the Paris agreement will also set up a transparent system to monitor and verify national progress toward climate action pledges. California and Germany should encourage the adoption of the Paris mandates at the most local level. They can start by appealing to an already enthusiastic pilot group: a group of 12 subnational provinces and states that California and the German state of Baden-Württemberg led, in May, to sign an agreement pledging to cut emissions by at least 80 percent below the 1990 level by 2050.

The provinces and cities that seek to transform their local energy systems can also benefit from California and Germany’s expertise. Both could offer various consulting services to enable local policymakers and energy professionals to share best practices in, for example, the market design and technical integration of renewable energy. Germany could share the success and failures of its experiment with the “renewables club,” now called the International Renewables Energy Agency, which comprises 140 nations that share data and best practices on sustainable energy initaitives. California and Germany should carve out a similar space for local technical cooperation. Facilitating the exchange of expertise will be inexpensive compared with the cost of developing that expertise in the first place. And in California and Germany, energy businesses will likely find this exchange a lucrative one since it provides an opportunity to connect with new markets.

The yawning gap between California and Germany’s progress and the lack thereof around the world challenges the idea that climate change must be addressed with independent multinational and subnational approaches. After decades of pioneering action on climate change, it is time these two climate leaders bring the rest of the world up to speed.

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