Climate Governance and Federalism

Navigating Challenges and Opportunities

Climate change poses one of the greatest challenges of our time, demanding urgent action and global cooperation. As nations grapple with the complexities of climate governance, the role of federal systems becomes a topic of interest. In fact, the majority of the world’s largest carbon emitters are either federations or have adopted systems of decentralized governance.

Federalism, with its numerous sites for action and diverse governance scales, can potentially be an asset in addressing climate change. However, its division of powers and multiple governments also present challenges to effective climate governance. The realization of the world’s climate mitigation objectives therefore depends in large part on whether and how governments within federal systems can co-operate to reduce carbon emissions and catalyze the emergence of low-carbon societies.

A recent comparative policy analysis by the Forum of Federations—Climate Governance and Federalism—brings together leading experts to explore whether federal or decentralized systems help or hinder efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It reviews the opportunities and challenges federalism offers for the development and implementation of climate mitigation and adaption policies and identifies the conditions that influence the outcomes of climate governance. Including in-depth case studies of fourteen different jurisdictions, this is an essential resource for academics, policymakers, and practitioners interested in climate governance and the best practices for enhancing climate action.

The Intersection of Federalism and Climate Governance

Federal systems, characterized by the coexistence of different levels of government, provide an intriguing context for climate governance. The division of powers between the central government and constituent units can significantly impact the implementation of climate change commitments. Federalism allows for locally appropriate measures, responsiveness to regional conditions, and the potential for policy experimentation and inter-jurisdictional learning. However, federalism can also create impediments to effective climate governance through veto points, policy fragmentation, and collective action problems.

Federalism as a Facilitator

One of the strengths of federalism in climate governance is its ability to tailor policies to regional contexts. With diverse economic structures, natural resource endowments, and climate risks, constituent units in federations can craft measures aligned with their specific circumstances. This localized approach enables nuanced decision-making and reflects the principle of subsidiarity, where tasks are carried out at the most appropriate level. Furthermore, the redundancy of two levels of government provides an opportunity for constituent units to compensate for inaction by the central government. This compensatory federalism allows for diverse initiatives that collectively contribute to overall policy goals. Additionally, federalism facilitates inter-jurisdictional learning, where successful policies and approaches can be shared and replicated, driving momentum for action.

Federalism as a Hindrance

While federalism offers advantages, it also presents challenges to climate governance. The division of powers and multiple veto points can hinder policymaking and result in blame-shifting. In some cases, constituent units may have limited authority to act or face constraints due to misaligned responsibilities and capabilities. This can impede the effectiveness and efficiency of climate measures, leading to fragmented and poorly coordinated policies. Additionally, the competitive dynamics among constituent units may foster a “race to the bottom” mentality, where individual units prioritize their own interests over collective action. The absence of coordinated efforts can undermine the overall effectiveness of climate governance.

Navigating the Complexities

Addressing climate change within a federal system requires navigating the complexities and maximizing the potential benefits while mitigating the challenges. To foster effective climate governance, federal systems need to establish mechanisms for intergovernmental coordination and collaboration. This includes clear lines of responsibility, effective communication channels, and platforms for sharing best practices and lessons learned. Enhancing the capacity of constituent units through technical assistance and resources can empower them to take meaningful action and contribute to collective goals. Moreover, engaging multiple stakeholders, including civil society organizations and the private sector, can foster collaboration and build a shared sense of responsibility.


Climate change governance is a multifaceted endeavor, and federalism adds another layer of complexity to the equation. While federal systems offer advantages such as localized decision-making and the potential for policy experimentation, they also pose challenges in terms of coordination and collective action. The success of climate governance within a federal framework depends on establishing effective mechanisms for intergovernmental collaboration, ensuring clear lines of responsibility, and engaging diverse stakeholders. By harnessing the strengths of federalism and mitigating its weaknesses, countries can navigate the challenges of climate change and work towards a sustainable and resilient future.

Access the entire book in PDF from the Forum of Federation website:

Climate Governance and Federalism: A Forum of Federations Comparative Policy Analysis. Edited by Alan Fenna, Sébastien Jodoin, and Joana Setzer. Cambridge University Press, May 2023.

Climate Governance and Federalism: A Forum of Federations Comparative Policy Analysis

1 – Climate Governance and Federalism: An Introduction (Alan Fenna, Sébastien Jodoin, Joana Setzer)
2 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Australia (Alan Fenna)
3 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Brazil (Fabiana Barbi Seleguim, Fernando Rei)
4 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Canada (Kathryn Harrison)
5 – Climate Governance and Quasi-Federalism in China (Hongtao Yi, Shuai Cao)
6 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Ethiopia (Yalemsew Adela, Adefires Worku, Tilaye Nigussie)
7 – Climate Governance and Federalism in the European Union (Mariachiara Alberton)
8 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Germany (Peter Eckersley, Kristine Kern, Wolfgang Haupt, Hannah Müller)
9 – Climate Governance and Federalism in India (Aditya Valiathan Pillai, Navroz K. Dubash)
10 – Climate Governance and Decentralization in Indonesia (Monica Di Gregorio, Moira Moeliono)
11 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Mexico (Marco Heredia, Beatriz Corral)
12 – Climate Governance and Federalism in South Africa (Jaap de Visser, Anél du Plessis)
13 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Spain (Susana Galera Rodrigo, Mercedes Alda-Fernandez, Mario Kölling)
14 – Climate Governance and Federalism in Switzerland (Marlene Kammerer, Sean Mueller, Karin Ingold, Maria Gallmann)
15 – Climate Governance and Federalism in the United States (Barry Rabe, Hannah Smith)
16 – Reflections on Climate Governance and Federalism (Alan Fenna)

    Note: This blog was prepared with the assistance of OpenAI.