Climate Change

Ambitious climate policy requires a better federalism

Some insights from the NDC process in Canada and Kenya

By Marie Vadronick
Published: Friday 26 July 2019
Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya is the world's largest desert lake and has been rapidly shrinking. Photo: Getty Images
Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya is the world's largest desert lake and has been rapidly shrinking. Photo: Getty Images Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya is the world's largest desert lake and has been rapidly shrinking. Photo: Getty Images

In 2015, the world endorsed the Paris Agreement with the aim of limiting warming to 1.5-2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels and communicated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce emissions and promote adaptation.

However, the aggregate ambition in the current NDCs takes us well past the 2°C target. Worse, current policies are not matching the promises made in NDCs. So, we are really on track for a global average temperature increase in excess of 3°C.

Explanations for the lack of ambition tend to focus on international relations. However, the process of setting climate policy goals is driven primarily by domestic politics.

Explaining the lack of ambition hence requires us to take a closer look at the fundamental features of domestic political systems. Even while acknowledging that each country’s institutions are unique, there are some common threads across borders.

Canada and Kenya

Take, for example, Canada and Kenya. Despite the obvious economic differences, both have a significant role to play in climate change ambition — Canada is one of the countries responsible for the largest portion of the world’s historical greenhouse gas emissions, while Kenya is located in a region which is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Both feature federated political structures, which (in theory) should produce achievable climate targets which are durably embedded in domestic politics. Yet, both these countries are not on track to meet their NDC targets.

Canada’s current targets are not ambitious enough, which is a problem in itself. Worse, its current policies are not adequate to meet even its self-determined un-ambitious targets.

On paper, the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF) establishes a governance structure to support coordination between the Canadian provinces and between governments and stakeholders in delivering on targets.

In practice, a collaborative report by Auditors General across Canadian provinces revealed that seven out of twelve provinces and territories did not have overall targets for reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions at all, and only six provinces were being transparent with the public regarding their climate performance.

These gaps persist because each province has a polluting industry which seeks provincial protection. Alberta initially imposed its own provincial carbon tax, then repealed it, and now seeks to challenge the federal government’s carbon tax (which is designed to apply only if a province does not regulate carbon emissions).

Saskatchewan recently launched legal efforts to protect its energy industry against the federal carbon tax; Ontario seeks much the same result for its automotive industry. The provincial hostility to the national law somehow co-exists alongside significant citizen majorities who support more ambitious federal climate policy.

This blatant protectionism is being framed as a preservation of Canadian federalism. The truth is that the Canadian constitution is not a bar to federal carbon regulation.

The shallow narrative thus far has produced a suite of institutional mantras — 'collaborative federalism', 'harmonisation' etc. Their efficacy is evident from the findings of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development — in 2017, she concluded that the federal government needs to move "from a seemingly endless planning mode into an action mode".

In Kenya, national targets and strategy are set in the National Climate Change Action Plans of 2011-2017 and 2018-2022. They reflect its NDC target of abating GHG emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 in comparison to a business as usual projection.

Progress on mitigation is discernible in some sectors, such as forestry. Other sectors, like energy, are set for significant emissions increases, partly encouraged by countries and international organisations who should know better.

Kenya’s emissions, however, are minuscule (0.13 per cent of the world total in 2017), especially compared to its population (0.66 per cent of the world total). The more critical challenge is adaptation, for which Kenya has specified thematic and sectoral targets in its National Adaptation Plan.

A key theme is "devolution", which involves the long-term target of "implement[ing] county adaptation plans".

This reinforces Kenya’s unique position as a federation which has gone further than most to localise control over climate policy. It has created County Climate Change Funds in five of its counties.

These were initially financed by international donors, but are now funded out of fixed percentages of the counties’ budgets. This is part of a broader move toward devolution driven by the new Constitution of 2010.

However, the record of these institutions in delivering coherent climate policy has been inadequate.

There is a lack of policy coordination between national and county institutions, a lack of coordination between counties to generate projects of a broader scope, and a lack of technical capacity at the county level to generate high quality projects.

The last point is further complicated by the feeling at the grassroots that too much money is going toward ‘capacity-building’ and not enough towards projects that generate community benefits.

It is clear that setting up county-level institutions does not remove the need for support from the national government. The devolution process is still nascent in Kenya, and counties are not hitting their revenue targets.

In addition, while county funds are effective at delivering tangible benefits to communities, national funds are better at mobilising large quantities of finance which match the scale of the climate challenge.

Kenya’s national climate policy is helmed by the Climate Change Directorate (CCD) established by the Climate Change Act, 2016.

It is a specialised institution, whose role in relation to the pre-existing National Environment Management Authority (as well as other sectoral institutions, such as for agriculture) is not yet clear.

The 2016 law also established a National Climate Change Fund which is yet to be operationalised. The national framework to support local action is hence still nascent.

There is a global drive towards empowering local governance; this extends to climate policy. From the examples reviewed here, it is clear that federalism cannot mean swapping out national institutions for local ones.

National institutions need to continue providing resources while relinquishing control. They are critical for translating international consensus into a coherent national strategy.

When parochial interests prevent action, they must leverage their constitutional prerogatives to push regional cooperation. Unless we can usefully manage the push-and-pull between different levels of government, ambitious climate action will be impossible.

Marie Vadronick is an intern at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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