COP 26 globe in Blue Zone

Multilevel Politics, Climate and COP26

Published: 16 November 2021

Guest post by Professor Elizabeth Bomberg, Professor of Environmental Politics and member of the University of Edinburgh observer delegation to COP26.

As the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow came to a close much of the attention  – for good reason – was on the last minute wrangling between states over the final wording of the Glasgow Climate Pact.  But behind that high-level, state-to-state negotiation,  significant climate action, commitments and agreements were being forged by ‘non’-state actors, including actors below the level of the central state.  Substate actors – cities, provinces, states, regions - are increasingly core to national and international climate policy and negotiations.  Their contribution and role were especially apparent at this Glasgow COP.

Substate actors are not formal parties to the conference, but are represented in some countries’ own delegations, or as part of network organisations granted ‘observer’ status. That status grants organisations access to the official COP Blue Zone, where plenary sessions and negotiation take place, and where country and organisation pavilions offer information sessions, seminars and panels.  Crucially, the Blue Zone is also where parties and non-party actors congregate, network and present themselves to the press. The number and range of substate organisations represented at climate summits has grown considerably as the importance of substate climate action itself increases.  These networks include city alliances, states and regions organisations, or hybrid networks combining substate actors with businesses or philanthropy foundations (Race to Zero).

At COP26 such networks had their own pavilion – the aspirational Multilevel Action Pavilion. The range of activities covered was striking, including lessons from African mayors, city imperatives for net zero, or devolved governments’ insights on just transitions. The underlying theme of all sessions was that substate actors matter and climate can not be addressed without them. Evidence backs that claim. The nearly 300 states and regions forming the Under 2 coalition, for instance, represent nearly half the world’s economy and a quarter of the world’s population.  When – as featured at COP26 - this coalition sets a net zero commitment as membership criteria, we should listen. Moreover, governance levels below the state can play a key role addressing climate even when the central level is reluctant to act. That point was well made by former US President Barack Obama in his speech at the COP26, noting how US cities and states stepped up when the federal government under Donald Trump refused to do so. 

The role of substate actors and intergovernmental relations this year has been more intense than usual because of the position of Scotland as host to the COP in Glasgow, but not a formal party to it.  As host, Scotland has exerted in subtle and less subtle ways its distinct position, aspirations and role in addressing the issues of climate. The Multilevel Action Platform pavilion mentioned above was itself hosted by the Scottish Government.  The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon embraced fully the chance to meet government and civil society leaders, and extend Scottish hospitality to other substate and national policymakers. (The latter role perhaps most memorably included introducing Irn-Bru to visiting US dignitaries such as Congressional delegate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.)

Formal international negotiations and energy policy are both reserved matters, which means Scotland’s formal power on core issues surrounding climate, energy, and international agreements are limited.  But that has not stopped the Scottish Government from exerting its own ‘pioneering’ position on climate, and emphasizing – above all - how that position differs from the UK’s.  This ‘politics of difference’ approach -- highlighting Scotland’s distinct (if not superior) position to Westminster, pervades climate change policy.  It was also evident throughout the conference.

The Scottish government seized the opportunity to present Scotland’s climate policy as more progressive by repeated reference to its own tougher targets, more ambitious embrace of renewables, and criticism of the UK Government’s support for the continued extraction of fossil fuels.  Scotland’s position was arguably undermined by its own reluctance to eschew all future oil extraction and join the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance  launched at COP26.  But the intended contrast was still evident. The Scottish Government sought further to burnish its own reputation to deliver a more inclusive, participatory approach to policyTheir pavilion events intentionally featured ‘voices not usually heard’ –promoting views from women, youth and the Global South. 

Finally, the Scottish position at COP26 featured a strong emphasis on the moral responsibility of developed nations, and its intention to lead. In one of the Multilevel Action Pavilion sessions Scottish Environment Minister Mairi McAllan stressed that Scotland was now  ‘acknowledging our moral responsibility’ by addressing the plight of communities most vulnerable to - but least responsible for - climate damage. A significant announcement in this regard was Scotland’s pledge of £2 million to a ‘loss and damage fund’ for affected communities in the Global South –the first nation to do so.  Here we see the Scottish Government’s attempt to address holistically the problem of climate change, but also an attempt to present Scotland as an engaged, progressive, moral actor on climate change – superior to the state in which it is embedded.

In sum, this COP26 was particularly rich with examples of multilevel action. Substate actors used the forum to assert their own authority or, at times, criticise their own central governments. But the main underlying message is worth repeating: substate actors are absolutely core to addressing climate change. All levels of governance – whether cooperating or competing - are needed to increase ambition and deliver the change needed.   


Professor Elizabeth Bomberg is a Professor of Environmental Politics and was a member of the University of Edinburgh observer delegation to COP26.

Picture credits: All Elizabeth Bomberg, except Nicola Sturgeon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – The Guardian, 12 November 2021


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