Climate action needs local leaders: can they rise to the challenge?

Last November, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) brought another call for action to reach the 1.5 degree global warming target. Net-zero greenhouse gas emission targets for 2050 have moved climate commitments up the national agendas. However, to move from targets to action, we need strong local and regional leadership too.

Local leaders will need to mobilise their communities to tackle the very different challenges they face and seize new opportunities in making the transition to net zero. In doing so, they can generate solutions that bring important local well-being benefits to their communities.

Actions differ across regions

With huge variations in the source and intensity of greenhouse gas emissions between regions, meeting climate objectives will demand different actions in different places. In some regions, industrial emissions tend to dominate. In others, emissions come from transport, agriculture or power-generation.

Carbon emissions per capita vary hugely across regions
Source: OECD calculations based on EC 2020, EDGAR – Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, Joint Research Centre, European Commission.

Different places also require different policy instruments. High-income cities can take the lead in building a more circular economy, eliminating waste and promoting shared car rides. They should also encourage their citizens to switch from consuming goods that are produced at the cost of high emissions elsewhere. Rural areas will need to reform agriculture through – for example – reduced tillage, permanent soil cover, use of organic products, diversified cropping systems and agroforestry that can sequester carbon as well as by taking steps to reduce emissions from fertilisers and animal farming. Many regions can harness natural resources to generate renewable energy. To make such projects more attractive to local populations, local citizens can participate in decision-making and profits. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany), for instance, has set up state-wind energy dialogues and mediation on renewable energy projects at the local level.

Supporting a just transition to respond to regional vulnerabilities

Local partners also need to be involved when considering how to manage risks to local jobs. Only about 2.3% of workers are employed in key sectors at risk of job losses. These will likely be balanced by employment gains in sectors arising from the green transformation, such as renewable power production, recycling, and construction. However, jobs at risk, including in the chemicals industry or in air transport, tend to be geographically concentrated, and new opportunities will not necessarily arise in the same places.

Governments will need to anticipate these risks, and identify new opportunities for workers that make the most of local assets and skills, drawing on local expertise. For example, in Akron (Ohio, United States), a university mobilised its industrial heritage in rubber and tire manufacturing to build an advanced research centre for green technologies drawing on established skills and pollution measurement instruments.

Climate policy generates important local well-being benefits – if it builds on local action

Better health and quality of life are powerful motivators for local climate action. One such policy is to improve public transport networks and provide incentives for walking and cycling. This can reduce emissions as well as local air pollution, environmental noise and traffic congestion, therefore improving health, quality of life and the productivity of residents. For example, in Dublin (Ireland), one study shows that digital-based ride sharing could reduce the number of vehicles by up to 98% and CO2 emissions by 31%, even before the electrification of transport, provided it replaces individual car use. There are similar results for other cities, such as Wellington (New Zealand). These and other benefits can exceed costs of climate action in many places, which can radically change the political economy of climate policy.

Co-ordinating climate action

To succeed, local leaders must have the right incentives, resources, and co-operation mechanisms. For instance, financial transfers from national to subnational governments can be accompanied by contracts to reduce emissions. This may involve setting other targets, such as to increase the growth rate of renewables and to accelerate the decarbonisation of the building stock.

Local and regional leaders can and must play a key role in climate policy. Many are already doing so. More than 10,000 cities and regions from over 140 countries have committed to their own climate and energy targets and actions. Yet to achieve the scale of change required, cities and regions must now be equipped with more powerful tools and incentives to drive change and build decisive momentum. Only then will we be able to keep 1.5 alive.

Andrés Fuentes Hutfilter
Senior Economist at | Website

Andrés Fuentes Hutfilter is senior economist in the OECD and head of the Regional Outlook and Environmental Economics unit in the Economic Analysis, Data and Statistics Division of the Centre for Entrepreneurship (CFE), SMEs, Regions and Cities in the OECD. He has lead the work on the 2021 OECD Regional Outlook and works on territorial aspects of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in OECD countries and their economic analysis. Before joining CFE he worked in its Economics Department. He holds a DPhil in Economics from Oxford University.

Jolien Noels
Junior Policy Analyst at | Website

Jolien is a Junior Policy Analyst at the OECD. Prior, she was a researcher at the Grantham Research Institute (LSE). At the OECD, Jolien has researched the net-zero emissions transition and its implications on regional development, firms and local employment. She is also working on subnational climate transitions from a finance perspective. Jolien holds an MSc in Environmental Economics from the London School of Economics and an MA in Applied Economics from the University of Antwerp.