26. July | 2021

Climate Policy Governance: (Not only) the Federal States Matter

At what level does climate policy take place? Are cities the drivers or do they just implement targets decided at a higher level? In fact, a combination of both mechanisms - and many others that lie between these extremes - is at work. In addition to the EU and federal levels, the federal states in Germany are particularly influential actors that are finding diverse - and differently ambitious - responses to climate change. Cities, in turn, are in contact with all levels of climate policy, from regional to European.  

Like many other political issues, climate policy is negotiated at different territorial and administrative levels: the international (UN), transnational (EU), national, subnational (in Germany: federal states), regional and local or municipal levels. In research, the term "multilevel governance" is used to describe governance processes that are organised across different levels, i.e. in a "multilevel system". How does this governance function in the field of climate policy, and what results does it produce?

Governance in a Multi-Level System: Cooperation Wins

In the research report "The Multi-level Context for Local Climate Governance in Germany", Peter Eckersley, Kristine Kern, Wolfgang Haupt and Hannah Müller identify three basic types of multilevel governance. In the case of "hierarchical governance", goals and commitments to action are passed down from the top to the bottom. Each level has to follow the next higher one and can give guidelines to the one below. Governance research has shown that this form of governance, which is typical above all for centralised states, may appear efficient, but it promises little success when it comes to complex problems such as climate policy. The exchange relationships necessary for joint learning are lacking, as is sensitivity to different needs, conditions and capabilities. In the case of "horizontal governance", actors at one level, for example regions or cities, network to learn from and cooperate with each other. This form of governance is demanding. Particularly well-equipped and networked actors make use of it. For the broad mass of regional authorities, however, both the binding nature and the necessary funding are lacking. The third option is "vertical governance", in which higher levels set guidelines, but in which there are (formal as well as informal) exchange and negotiation relationships in every direction, in which levels can be skipped and non- or semi-governmental actors (associations, NGOs) can also be involved. Research on climate governance finds this form of governance, which appears complicated at first glance, to be the most effective of the three.

In practice, there are numerous examples of vertical governance. At the EU level in particular, a combination of hierarchical and cooperative elements prevails. Binding targets, such as the EU's revised 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels), are the result of negotiation processes among and with member states. Various initiatives serve to implement the targets, such as the trading system for emission rights in energy production and large-scale industry, which was introduced in 2005. For other sectors, such as transport, construction and agriculture, the EU has also formulated targets and backed them up with directives, such as the Energy Efficiency Regulation or the Directive on the Energy Performance of Buildings, which are to be implemented by the member states.  

In its climate policy, the EU also works directly with cities and regions in network-like structures, as Kristine Kern describes in her article "Cities as Leaders in EU Multilevel Climate Governance". As an example, she mentions the "Covenant of Mayors", an initiative of the EU Commission, which provides numerous material and immaterial supports to urban, but also rural municipalities, if they commit themselves to binding climate policy goals, develop corresponding strategies and accept reporting obligations. At the same time, the participating municipalities and regions help each other and push forward a common agenda. The EU also supports local authorities by providing research data through the Joint Research Centre of the EU Commission and the European Environment Agency. Local authorities can also obtain certification, such as the European Energy Award or the European Climate Adaptation

Award - certifications that are financially supported by several German federal states.

Researchers have also identified a great importance of cooperative approaches in the relationship between the federal government and the German states, which they explain with the relatively strong influence of the states in federal politics (for example, via the Bundesrat). Federalism, often criticized as ponderous, allows for cooperative policy formulation as well as competition and experimentation with different approaches at the state and municipal levels. Within the framework of the "Municipal Directive", the federal government provides substantial funding for climate protection in municipalities, and the "100 % Climate Protection Master Plan" promotes particularly ambitious municipalities. This also serves to promote networking and learning among municipalities. At the same time, the federal level also sets binding targets, most recently with the Climate Protection Act of 2019, which stipulates a 65 % reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990), and the "Climate Protection Plan 2050", which formulates sector-specific targets. The Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) of 2000, which initially triggered a boom in renewable energies through a guaranteed feed-in tariff, provided a major impetus, but over time it was amended and supplemented by other regulations in such a way that the expansion of wind energy in particular came to a virtual standstill in the end. The "transport turnaround", named after the "energy turnaround", has so far had its strongest effect in the area of individual electric mobility - through purchase premiums and the expansion of the charging infrastructure.

Strong Differences at State Level

The researchers have identified the level of the federal states as a source of strong differentiation. The climate policy approaches of the Länder differ significantly, for several reasons. Due to the shift towards renewable energies such as wind and solar, natural features, settlement structure and land availability become more important. The economic structure in conjunction with the traditional energy mix also have an impact. At the same time, the Länder have a special relationship with cities and municipalities: although the Basic Law and Länder constitutions guarantee municipal self-administration, the Länder are responsible for supervising the municipalities. However, the Länder supervise the municipalities and can assign them new compulsory tasks, whereby they are obliged under the principle of connexity to allocate them corresponding financial resources in this case. At the same time, all 16 Länder have established energy agencies to support learning and networking among municipalities on energy policy issues. In this way, countries are influencing local climate strategies. In their research report, Eckersley, Kern, Haupt and Müller identify five basic climate policy types into which the Länder can be divided.

The coal states include North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg and Saxony, whose economic structure and energy production are or were traditionally shaped by the mining and use of hard coal and lignite. Although all five states are pushing ahead with climate protection initiatives, their overall level of ambition lags behind that of other states as well as the federal level. It is true that NRW was the first federal state ever (and the only coal state) to pass a climate protection law with binding reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions and the first state to set up an energy agency in the 1990s. It is also the only coal state to participate in the Under2Coalition, a global network of regions committed to climate protection. However, with the change from a red-green to a black-yellow coalition government in 2017, a partial dismantling of climate policy structures and a change in focus from climate adaptation to climate protection could be observed, for example in the promotion of municipal activities such as certifications. Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt focus their climate policies on the expansion of renewable energy generation and initiatives to develop climate-friendly industries. In its 2012 energy strategy, for example, Brandenburg formulated the goal of increasing the renewable share of energy production to 32% by 2030, in particular by dedicating 2% of the state's land to wind energy production. All five states were and are net energy exporters.

As nuclear and solar energy states, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg traditionally covered a large part of their energy needs from nuclear energy and were forced to reorient themselves as a result of the decision to phase out nuclear power in 2011. This was done primarily through a massive expansion of solar energy, although much of this was financed privately or through the EEG levy. Both states institutionalized environmental policy (1970s) and climate policy (1990s) early on. After North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg passed the second state climate law with binding reduction targets, while Bavaria passed a corresponding law in 2020. Both states belong to the Under2Coalition, in which Baden-Württemberg plays a leading role. In Baden-Württemberg, the support (for example, through regional energy agencies), financial support and commitment of the municipalities (through a binding agreement with municipal associations) in the sense of increased local climate protection is particularly pronounced. In the expansion of wind energy, on the other hand, both states are more restrained than other Flächenländer.

The wind energy states of Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have favourable natural conditions for wind turbines and, in the course of the energy transition, transformed themselves from energy importing countries with a high share of nuclear energy in the energy mix to leading producers of wind energy, both onshore and offshore. Renewable energies became important economic factors. Two states, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are now net energy exporters. All three states have committed to reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions, although the targets in the two western states are more ambitious and binding (through climate protection laws) than in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Schleswig-Holstein obliges its municipalities to protect the climate. Lower Saxony has the largest renewable energy industry in Germany, but continues to subsidise fossil fuels on a large scale.

The energy importing states of Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia did not have large fossil or nuclear energy sectors in the past and will remain dependent on energy imports for the foreseeable future, as they lack the spatial prerequisites for regenerative energy generation to meet demand. Nevertheless, the states are active in climate policy: all three belong to the Under2Coalition. Hesse has had an integrated sustainability strategy and reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions since 2008, but does not have a climate protection law. The state strongly promotes municipal activities under the National Climate Protection Initiative ("Kommunalrichtlinie"). Rhineland-Palatinate has legally committed itself to reduction targets. In implementing the targets, the focus is on supporting the state's unusually large number of very small municipalities in cooperating on climate policy. Thuringia reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 61% from 1990 to 2020 (the largest reduction of any state) and now meets a large part of its energy needs from renewable sources. In 2018, it was the only eastern German state outside Berlin to pass a climate protection law with binding reduction targets.

The city states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen do not have the prerequisites for large-scale renewable energy production. They are dependent on energy imports as well as fossil energy production in their own territory and still cover the majority of their energy needs from fossil sources. Although all three countries have legally committed themselves to ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they only have favourable conditions for meeting these targets on the demand side (e.g. in transport and in construction and building refurbishment). Accordingly, they are driving forward climate protection measures mainly within the framework of their respective urban development and planning policies. Unlike the Flächenländer, the city states also pursue a pronounced climate adaptation policy, which reflects the high risk to the metropolitan population from heat waves and heavy rainfall events.

This differentiated reappraisal of climate policy governance in the multi-level system shows that while there are different speeds and levels of ambition in climate policy, it is the interactions of the different levels and the relationships between territorial units that matter for substantial progress. Cities and urban societies can visibly push for climate policy progress, pioneer sustainable building, transport and (in some cases) energy supply solutions, and drive adaptation to climate change. In the context of the energy transition, however, they are more likely to become even more dependent on their regional environment and large-scale supply networks. Land-locked countries face enormous challenges in the development of renewable energies and green industries, but they also have enormous potential. Small towns and rural communities, on the other hand, need support from higher levels. For them, regional networking offers an opportunity to become more effective. As Andreas Röhring and Ludger Gailing write in their policy paper "Energiewende dezentral!", regions should avoid merely providing the space for land-intensive solar and wind power plants ("installation landscapes"). Instead, they should see themselves as spaces for action that benefit from the transformation in a variety of ways. Climate policy at state, federal and EU level faces the balancing act of setting ambitious targets and incentives, responding to needs for support, developing networked solutions and not thwarting the most ambitious.


Research Associate

Peter Eckersley joined IRS as a research associate in September 2019 to work part-time on the project "Urban Resilience vis-a-vis Extreme Weather Events - Typology and Transfer (ExTrass)". He is also an Editor of Local Government Studies and works part-time as a Senior Research Fellow at Nottingham Trent University in the UK.


Research Associate

Wolfgang Haupt joined IRS as a research associate in May 2019. He works in the project "Urban Resilience vis-a-vis Extreme Weather Events - Typology and Transfer (ExTrass)”. His research focusses on local climate governance, transnational municipal climate networks, city-to-city-learning and the transfer and mobility of local climate policies.