Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa Climate action and sustainable development

Think piece – what is local authorities’ involvement in COP 26?


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The UN, as we know it, was not really designed to accommodate the voices and aspirations of local actors – and that situation can be felt at global climate change conferences. It is easy for local actors to get lost in the multitude of high profile talks and side events focusing on national and international strategies and targets, however, there is space for local authorities to play a hugely important part in global events including the COP series.

This blog offers some insights to help maximise the usefulness of the conference for local government. The international community needs policy champions and active stakeholders to move forward with tangible delivery in the area of climate change and sustainability – and local authorities will continue to be the best partners. Stay tuned for further LGIU coverage of the event and you can join our upcoming roundtable by clicking the link here.

Background – UN remains a national governments’ club

The UN was designed after World War II to manage conflicts over global issues while also protecting the primacy of national governments and their sovereignty, and this remains true today. While important groups have been invited to have permanent consultative status – including local authorities – national governments oppose any attempt to grant other actors the ability to cast a vote or influence UN resolutions without their mediation.

However, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and complex, key policy issues have become almost intractable from a purely national perspective – climate change is one such problem. The causes and effects of climate change cannot be confined by national borders that force national governments to engage in what was previously perceived to be “other governments” affairs. Furthermore, not all populations are equally affected by climate change either at the same rate or with the same intensity. Thus, it is increasingly difficult for national governments to impose hard regulations on each other while being aware these rules will cause global redistributive effects.

Since no country has the ability to police strict cross-border regulations on complex global issues affecting climate change that task has been delegated to a range of UN agencies. These agencies, in turn, promote international events and mainstream vocabulary, define concepts, and generate a consensus that brings together a range of cross-border actors. This global, multi-level approach to climate governance is known as the Rio Model, in reference to the Earth Summit of 1992 where it was popularised. The resulting international agreements (e.g. Paris Climate Agreement) are meant to transform national behaviours and agendas – not through hard regulations, but through moral peer pressure and economic incentives.

Local authorities ARE key stakeholders at COP26

In this system of decentralised, ‘soft’ governance local authorities have become key allies for UN agencies, and local government is one of the best catalysts for experimentation, delivery and reform. Local authorities stand out amongst other potential stakeholders in climate governance – including private sector organisations, universities, and NGOs – because they possess two key characteristics: administrative capacity and political legitimacy. These two traits make them interesting and useful to UN agencies who try to empower them indirectly and showcase learning and success stories to national governments to demonstrate something can be done about climate change.

The decentralised nature of the Rio Model means that UN agencies try to promote as many opportunities for experimentation as possible amongst their stakeholders. Despite having tight and unstable budgets, agencies capitalise on their networks to gather thousands of compatible stakeholders around large international events including COP26. Alongside international climate agreements, such events are important networking opportunities where stakeholders can learn about what other actors and places are doing to address climate change.

The political legitimacy of local authorities is extremely interesting and vital for the long-term success of climate and sustainability initiatives. The outcomes of programs spearheaded by local authorities reflect on the state of the country’s regulations and records of success. Therefore, some countries may appear particularly active and innovative in combating climate change when, in reality, it is local government who are the ones leading the charge at the local level. As democratically elected officials, local councillors are well placed to pile on the moral peer pressure on their own regional and national governments, particularly after leading and implementing successful climate and sustainability programmes.

Five steps for local government to maximise participation in COP 26 related activities

1. Get familiar with the vocabulary

Local delegations can benefit from understanding the vocabulary and key objectives of the Paris Agreement and other UN frameworks relevant to local authorities. Since a key objective of these events is to mainstream and coordinate the global conversation around these topics, working knowledge of the common vocabulary and objectives is likely to streamline the conversations with potential partners. Moreover, the language barrier in international settings makes consolidated terms useful anchors for conversations with actors from around the world. And not least, language is important for identifying the appropriate goals and removing barriers to access grants and other economic incentives.

2. Be strategic

Local delegations should be strategic when selecting which events to attend. International conferences are packed with official and unofficial side events. Often other organisations in the host city organise their own parallel events and discussions to take advantage of the inflow of visitors from abroad. Official reports from UN conferences tend to show that there is an overwhelming number of sessions and the redundancy of topics cause two main sources of dissatisfaction. Since all presidency sessions are recorded and available – at least for some time until the accounts cease to be managed – it is worth being selective with which ones to attend – for instance, the only presidency session dedicated to cities will be on Thursday November 11, however, this won’t be the case with most side events at the Green Zone and around the city. Moreover, smaller events offer a higher potential to discuss and get to know potential partners during and after the events.

3. Think about your delegates

Who attends in the local delegation matters. Delegations made by municipal councillors or by public officers might be more focused and miss interesting information and networking opportunities. Municipal councillors shine in their role as city representatives and contact points for non-government actors. However, they may lack detail about operational issues and local regulations and must refer back to city officials to really explore the potential of such contacts. Likewise, city officials have a keen eye to identify solutions and partnerships that could be beneficial for their policy area – but might be limited in taking advantage since, in most national contexts, it is not their role to propose policies to the national bodies. Regardless of who attends, these spaces are also helpful to identify opportunities and programmes that go beyond the city hall, including collaborations between local and international stakeholders. Local delegations might get inspired to broker more collaboration and mediate to streamline the necessary permits to help them happen.

4. Use this chance to develop networks

Local delegations have an opportunity to gain visibility and generate stronger networks through human contact. As regional and international networks of local authorities emerge, it becomes easier to get lost amongst the sheer amount of information and actors in online forums and platforms. Streaming services and online calls have limited the cost of reaching out to contacts located in other cities, but they are most useful when a personal connection has been previously established. Thus, international events like COP26 are a golden opportunity to get to know and establish these real-life connections before meeting in the digital world.

5. Take time to debrief

Lastly, local delegations should debrief and share their experiences internally after the event. Silo mentality exists even in relatively small organisations and the diversity of topics and actors in these international events makes the internal sharing of information a priority. Even in cases where the contact or the solution was not optimal and did not go forward, discussing internally why that was the case could bring valuable learning to the local authority. Likewise, it is worth revisiting the official platforms of the conference and the platforms of regional and international city networks to read their conclusions and evaluations of the events.


Attending global events as a member of a local authority delegation can be a confusing and overwhelming experience, particularly when such events have not been made with organisations like yours in mind. Despite this, with clear parameters and open expectations, it could also be a highly beneficial experience. The international community needs policy champions and active stakeholders to move forward with tangible delivery in the area of climate change and sustainability – and local authorities will continue to be the best partners. The subtleties’ of governing complex issues in the international community may have interesting correlations with the governance of similar complex topics within local government networks and organisations.

LGIU will be running a post COP26 briefing event (places are limited) and we’ll be rounding up the impact and next steps for local government in our Global Local Recap. To stay in the loop, sign up with LGIU (it’s free!) and make sure you select Climate action and sustainable development as a topic of interest or choose the Global Insight package. 


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