Climate change adaptation and mitigation are major, long-term challenges facing policymakers in all countries, and part of the broader task of meeting international commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs have a strong territorial dimension, and the involvement of sub-national levels of government is essential to achieve most of the targets. Further, regional policy is – in principle – well positioned to facilitate coordinated government responses and provide place-based solutions to the geographically differentiated climate challenges. But is this the case in practice? Is the territorial dimension of climate change properly recognised and addressed in regional policy frameworks of European countries? And how are regional policies actually used to address SDG13 – and are they effective?
Sustainable Development Goals: effective territorialisation?
Climate change can no longer be prevented and poses “a moderate threat to current sustainable development and a severe threat to future sustainable development”.[i] In this context, strategies responding to climate change need to be embedded in a broader policy approach to sustainable development. But as with all disruptive trends, there are trade-offs between economic, social and environmental goals – and there will be significant territorial differences in the benefits and disadvantages from shifts to a more sustainable development model for economies and societies.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), included in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, have a crucial territorial dimension, not least because:
- the exposure to, and socio-economic implications of, various sustainable development challenges are spatially uneven;
- the SDG agenda can be a useful policy framework for tackling territorial disparities and ensuring equal opportunities for all – the core of the ‘sustainable development’ principle;
- regional development policies can act as an important tool to territorialise action to address SDGs, prioritise investment, and coordinate SDG action at regional levels;
- regional policies can help tackle the multi-dimensional nature of sustainable development challenges and promote cross-sectoral and cross-actor coordination;
- the involvement of sub-national levels of government and regional organisations in SDG decision-making is crucial for making policies better adjusted to territorial specificities and achieving better policy outcomes.
It has been estimated that at least 105 of the 169 SDG targets cannot be achieved without proper involvement and coordination with regional and local governments.[ii] This implies that the achievement of the 2030 Agenda depends on full ownership by communities, cities, regions and their national associations.[iii] While national policies provide important incentives for sustainability transitions, they rely to a large degree on policy decisions, activities and strategies at regional or local levels.[iv]
The evidence, however, shows that while the territorial dimension of SDGs might be well recognised at strategic level, in terms of actual practice, there is significant scope for improvement. Generally, many regional and local governments have not yet embraced the ‘transformative nature’ of the 2030 Agenda:[v] a 2019 report by the EU Committee of the Regions[vi] found that it is often seen as an additional, externally imposed burden detached from local policies and strategies, and is not complemented by adequate resources.
One example of the mismatch between strategic recognition and practical action can be seen in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). The VNRs in most European countries include explicit mention of the regional dimension of SDGs (see Figure 1), which is also often referenced in regional development documents.
Figure 1: Territorial dimensions included in Voluntary National Reviews for Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development (examples from selected European countries)
Source: Voluntary National Reviews.
In practice, however, the evidence to date indicates limited progress in regionalising/localising SDGs. There is relatively low engagement of sub-national levels in reporting on SDGs and preparing the VNRs – and, crucially, insufficient progress in implementing them at regional level.
The limited progress in regionalising SDGs is especially notable in relation to action on climate change (SDG13), which has one of the poorest records of achievement – and particularly at sub-national level. Most regions and cities are lagging behind on SDG13, with no regions in the OECD having yet met the suggested 2030 values for climate action.
At the same time, the impacts of climate change have a strong regional and local dimension. While all regions in Europe are affected, their exposure, socio-economic implications and response capacities are spatially uneven.
Source: EPRC, based on EEA (2017) Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016. An indicator-based report. EEA Report No 1/2017
As with other SDGs, sub-national governments are crucial actors in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
In this context, regional policies have the potential to play an important role. Policies for territorial development can help reduce regional vulnerability to climate change, providing place-based solutions and developing climate mitigation and adaptation capacities. Given that action on climate change needs to cross jurisdictions and sectors, regional policy is – in principle – well positioned to offer coherent and coordinated responses to its various dimensions.
But to what extent do regional policies across Europe actually embrace this?
Responding to climate change: what can regional policy offer?
What this research has shown is that in strategic terms, the territorial dimension of climate change is quite widely recognised – and so is the role of territorial development policies in tackling climate issues. With inevitable variation between countries, a territorial dimension is evident in national and sub-national climate strategies, in spatial planning documents as well as in regional development frameworks/strategies at both national and regional levels.
Several countries mainstream action on climate change across multiple policy areas, cutting across ministerial remits and sectoral domains. This is often based on a vision of climate change as a horizontal, cross-cutting issue, that needs to be integrated into a range of sectoral policies and strategies, including regional development.
Unsurprisingly, many national climate strategies have an explicit recognition of the regional dimension of climate challenges and impacts and some include a clear territorial focus to national climate goals and targets. In some countries, this takes the form of regional, or territorialised, climate strategies which identify regional challenges and priorities in terms of climate adaptation and/or mitigation.
Spatial planning also provides an important strategic framework for emphasising the territorial dimension of climate issues. This varies across Europe, in part reflecting the different role of physical planning in national systems. But in many countries, spatial and/or urban planning frameworks serve as an essential tool to integrate climate change priorities into territorial development policies. They help territorialise climate objectives / targets and policy actions in regional, local and urban plans, and often combine mitigation and adaptation concerns
And crucially, regional policies frameworks rarely overlook the territorial effects and implications of climate change. Core regional policy documents in some countries highlight specific challenges that face individual regions – or types of regions (e.g. remote, rural areas, regions undergoing industrial transition) – within a country, and outline key needs in terms of policy responses. Some also stress the strong connection between climate impacts and territorial development imbalances. This includes, for example, the potential for regional disparities to be deepened by worsening climate risks as regions with lower adaptive capacity and resilience are likely to be most negatively affected. This calls for policy responses to be place-based and sensitive to the vulnerabilities of individual territories and communities.
Regional policy frameworks of many countries, at both national and sub-national levels, integrate climate change considerations to some degree although with different levels of comprehensiveness and concrete policy measures. Narratives include climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as climate change resilience, resource efficiency, transition away from fossil fuels, and loss of biodiversity, among others. In many cases, this is influenced to some degree by EU-level narratives. The strategic framework of Cohesion Policy, for example, which seeks to mainstream climate considerations into territorial development strategies and measures, is an influential factor.
The reality in practice?
But what if we try to move away from this purely strategic dimension and understand what regional policy does on the ground to help tackle climate change?
One of the ways in which climate commitments and objectives are translated into practice is through making climate change an investment priority within existing regional policy instruments and regional policy budgets. This can involve financial earmarking or the inclusion of requirements for minimum levels of spending on climate-related goals. Examples of this type of policy practice include the State-Region Planning Contracts in France, the City & Growth Deals and Local Devolution Deals in the UK, or the Dutch Top Sectors policy, all of which incorporate climate priorities and commitments on climate-related goals.
Overall, however, this research has found little systematic information on the actual effectiveness of regional policy actions on climate change. A number of interesting examples of policies addressing key climate hazards across countries (e.g. floods, droughts and forest fires) can undoubtedly be identified and it is certain that many more exist. But it has proven much more challenging to obtain evidence on how effective these measures have been and what difference they have made on the ground.
What could possible explanations be? Regional policy commitments to climate objectives are still relatively new. Further, investment priorities can have a very broad coverage, which complicates an evaluation of direct effects – and indeed any results can only be comprehensively assessed over the longer term. Any evaluation needs to take account of a wide range of factors, including intangible ones such as impacts on personal security, comfort and wellbeing – which could be analytically challenging to grasp but also require more time to materialise.
It is hoped, however, that as more evidence emerges over time, we will be able to understand better the strengths and weaknesses of specific regional policy measures that address climate change. This could help shift the theory that regional policy is an ideal framework for tackling geographically differentiated climate challenges into actual policy practice.
Viktoriya Dozhdeva, March 2021.
[i] Denton et al. (2014) Climate-resilient pathways: adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1101-1131.
[ii] OECD (2020) A Territorial Approach to the Sustainable Development Goals: Synthesis report. OECD Urban Policy Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris; CoR (2019) A territorial approach for the implementation of the SDGs in the EU – The role of the European Committee of the Regions. European Committee of the Regions, Commission for Economic Policy; UN (2016) Getting Started with the SDGs in Cities. A Guide for Stakeholders.
[iii] PLATFORMA and the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) (2019) How local & regional government associations bring the SDGs to life.
[iv] OECD (2019) OECD Regional Outlook 2019: Leveraging Megatrends for Cities and Rural Areas, OECD Publishing, Paris; OECD (2010) Regional Development Policies in OECD Countries, OECD Publishing, Paris; Galarraga I, González-Eguino M and Markandya A (2011) The Role of Regional Governments in Climate Change Policy. Environmental Policy and Governance 21(3), pp.164-182.
[v] OECD (2020) op. cit.
[vi] CoR (2019) op. cit.