The Role of Sub-state and Non-state Actors in International Climate Processes: Subnational Governments

This paper looks at the role of subnational governments in influencing global climate ambition, and makes recommendations for how these actors can increase their influence in the future.

Research paper Published 23 January 2019 Updated 6 October 2020
Photo by Annie Spratt, ‘High in the SuperTrees’ via Unsplash, 2017

Photo by Annie Spratt, ‘High in the SuperTrees’ via Unsplash, 2017


  • ‘Subnational governments’ – including municipal, regional and provincial authorities – lack the formal status of negotiating parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But they have a vital role to play in informing and helping to shape international climate action, as they are often the key delivery partners for on-the-ground policies.
  • Subnational governments are often closer to climate problems than the UNFCCC parties themselves, and have experience, expertise and peer influence that can support the development of progressive policies and increased ambition.
  • Many subnational governments have joined or formed various groupings to share information and experience, and to increase their collective profile and voice. Notable initiatives and collaborations include the Under2 Coalition, ICLEI, C40 and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy.
  • Subnational governments are highly diverse. In some cases, politically high-profile administrations – the US state of California being a notable example – have exploited their visibility and policy successes to engage in wider climate debates. Equally, however, subnational agendas can encounter resistance from national governments anxious to ensure the primacy of their negotiating positions in the UNFCCC system.
  • One of the advantages that subnational governments enjoy, subject to resources, is their ability to join with peer groups to take a fresh approach to mitigation or adaptation policies. Groups of cities or subnational regions can, through collaborative organizations, explore new approaches that might be less attractive within a national context.
  • To maintain and build on their current achievements and influence, subnational governments need, among other things, to: improve the credibility of their experience through evaluation of the success of their climate policies; use membership of appropriate international groups to share experience and boost their leverage; continue to create collaborative relationships with progressive businesses to increase influence at a national level; build on cross-regional relationships in climate adaptation and resilience; and work with other subnational actors to build momentum ahead of the first post-Paris revision of climate commitments in 2020.
2019-01-23-Duggan (PDF, 0.49MB)