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Testing the Boundaries of Subnational Diplomacy: The International Climate Action of Local and Regional Governments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 May 2015

Joana Setzer*
Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), London (United Kingdom). Email:


Since the 1990s, a number of local and regional governments around the world have started to engage in a real international or ‘paradiplomatic’ climate agenda. While the multilevel governance approach has advanced the examination of the actors and levels involved in climate governance, there is within this body of literature a limited consideration of the legal capacity of non-state actors to act across scales. This article addresses this gap and examines the potential limitations imposed on subnational diplomacy by international and domestic legal orders. The article draws upon the example of Brazil where, despite constitutional limitations on the involvement of subnational governments in international relations, paradiplomacy has been termed ‘federative diplomacy’ and institutionalized within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and within the Presidency of the Republic. The article shows that the diplomatic activity of local and regional governments is still constrained by international and domestic legal frameworks. If cities and regions are to help in addressing the inadequacies of the international climate regime, then domestic and international legal frameworks will need to further accommodate subnational diplomatic activities.

© Cambridge University Press 2015 

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I am grateful for the constructive feedback by two anonymous reviewers for this journal on earlier versions of this article.


1 There are several investigations of subnational policies that address climate change. For the United States (US) and Canada see Selin, H. & VanDeveer, S.D., Changing Climates in North American Politics: Institutions, Policymaking, and Multilevel Governance (The MIT Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Australia see Peel, J., Godden, L. & Keenan, R.J., ‘Climate Change Law in an Era of Multi-Level Governance’ (2012) 1(2) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 245–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Europe see Bulkeley, H., Cities and Climate Change (Routledge, 2013)Google Scholar; and Bulkeley, H. & Kern, K., ‘Local Government and the Governing of Climate Change in Germany and the UK’ (2006) 43(12) Urban Studies, pp. 2237–2259CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a wider spectrum of climate action undertaken by cities around the world see Broto, V.C. & Bulkeley, H., ‘A Survey of Urban Climate Change Experiments in 100 Cities’ (2013) 23(1) Global Environmental Change, pp. 92–102Google Scholar; and Lee, T. & Koski, C., ‘Mitigating Global Warming in Global Cities: Comparing Participation and Climate Change Policies of C40 Cities’ (2014) 16(5) Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, pp. 1–18Google Scholar. For a broader view of transnational climate governance see Abbott, K.W., ‘Strengthening the Transnational Regime Complex for Climate Change’ (2014) 3(1) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 57–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 The first regional emissions trading systems were established in the US. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) stimulated interest in regional emissions trading systems, with two further regional schemes – the Midwestern Accord and the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) cap-and-trade schemes. More recently, Chinese provinces have established a pilot carbon emissions trading scheme: see Wu, L., Qian, H. & Li, J., ‘Advancing the Experiment to Reality: Perspectives on Shanghai Pilot Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme’ (2014) 75(C) Energy Policy, pp. 22–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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27 Krause, n. 25 above.

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30 There is a substantial debate on the adequacy of the term ‘paradiplomacy’. Other terms suggested to describe the participation of subnational actors in the international arena are ‘multilayered diplomacy’ (B. Hocking, Localizing Foreign Policy: Non-central Governments and Multilayered Diplomacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 1993)), ‘catalytic diplomacy’ (Hocking, B., ‘The Woods and the Trees: Catalytic Diplomacy and Canada’s Trials as a Forestry Superpower’ (1996) 5(3) Environmental Politics, pp. 448–475CrossRefGoogle Scholar), and ‘sub-state diplomacy’ (N. Cornago, ‘On the Normalization of Sub-State Diplomacy’ (2010) 5(1–2) The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, pp. 11–36).

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34 Pluijm & Melissen, ibid., at p. 6.

35 Acuto, n. 19 above.

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61 The Treaty Clause is contained in Art. II(2)(2) US Constitution; the Compact Clause is a provision in Art. I(10)(3) US Constitution; the Foreign Commerce Clause is found in part of Art. I(8)(3) US Constitution,

62 California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cap-and-trade programme, available at:

63 California EPA, ‘Auction and Reserve Sale Information’, last updated 23 Feb. 2015, available at:

64 See, e.g., ‘EU Plans to Link Emissions Trading Scheme with California’, The Guardian, 7 Apr. 2011, available at:; and L. Zetterberg, ‘Linking the Emissions Trading Systems in EU and California’, Mistra Indigo Program, 2012, available at:

67 N. 19 above.

68 N. 23 above.

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71 Brazilian Federal Constitution, Arts 21(I) and 24(VII)–(VIII).

72 Ibid., Art. 21(I).

73 Ibid., Art. 84(VII).

74 Ibid., Art. 84(VIII).

75 Art. 7(III).

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78 Chamber of Deputies, Commission of Justice and Citizenship, ‘Manifestation over the Draft Law No. 475/2005, which Proposed the Addition of a Paragraph to Article 23 of the Federal Constitution to Allow States, the Federal District, and Municipalities to Promote Acts and Enter Agreements with Foreign Entities’, PRL1CCJC/PEC457/2005.

79 C. Brigadão, Relações internacionais federativas no Brasil: Estados e munícipios (Gramma, 2005), p. 21.

80 Decree 6,207, of 16 Sept. 2007. Art. 7 establishes the attributions of the Division for Federative Affairs. It revokes Decree 5,526, of 26 Aug. 2005, which in turn revoked Decree 4,968, of 30 Jan. 2004.

81 SAF, ‘A cooperação internacional federativa da Subchefia de Assuntos Federativos’, available at:

82 Milani & Ribeiro, n. 77 above, p. 26.

83 26 out of the 27 governments, according to Tavares, n. 77 above, at p. 175.

84 M. Andrade e Barros, A atuação internacional dos governos subnacionais (Del Rey, 2010).

85 Bastos, C.R., Curso de direito constitucional (Malheiros Editores, 2010)Google Scholar; Husek, C.R., Direito internacional público (LTR, 2010)Google Scholar; Varela, M.D., Direito internacional público (Saraiva, 2009)Google Scholar.

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87 See Andrade e Barros, n. 84 above.

89 REDD+ is a mechanism for encouraging forest conservation and cultivation in developing countries, using funding from the developed world. REDD+ assigns financial value to carbon stored within forest resources, to make local preservation efforts eligible for foreign financing, including voluntary investment and offset credits generated through foreign carbon markets. The REDD+ terminology and concept originate from a 2005 proposal to the UN by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, in response to the Kyoto Protocol’s (n. 51 above) lack of mechanism to reduce deforestation emissions. The ‘+’ in REDD+ indicates the last category of strategies, which includes conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. For more information on REDD+ and the California REDD+ experience see J. Lueders et al., ‘The California REDD+ Experience: The Ongoing Political History of California’s Initiative to Include Jurisdictional REDD+ Offsets within its Cap-and-Trade System’, Center for Global Development Working Paper 386, Nov. 2014, available at:

90 The GCF has been working since 2009 to advance jurisdictional programmes to reduce emissions from deforestation and land use, and to link these activities to emerging GHG compliance regimes and other pay-for-performance opportunities. Based on their experience in the GCF, in 2010 the states of California (US), Acre (Brazil), and Chiapas (Mexico) signed a separate MOU. Their aim was to cooperate more closely on the technical, legal, and institutional design issues associated with the effort to link state REDD+ programmes with California’s cap-and-trade programme. See the working group report, Evan Johnson (ed.), ‘California, Acre and Chiapas: Partnering to Reduce Emissions from Tropical Deforestation’, July 2013, available at: On the California-Acre process see also E. Roessing Neto, ‘Linking Subnational Climate Change Policies: A Commentary on the California-Acre Process’ (2015) 4(2) Transnational Environmental Law (forthcoming).

91 Transcript of an interview with the author, Dec. 2010.

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