Does climate change integration matter in subnational policies? Challenges and solutions in Italian and Austrian cases, by Federica Cittadino, Louisa Parks, Peter Bußjäger, and Francesca Rosignoli

Climate change governance is traditionally thought of and studied mainly as a matter for international cooperation. Central as they are for the advancement of climate-related commitments, international pledges need to be implemented by states, and implementation concerns not only the national level of government, but all government levels since climate change is not a unitary policy field. Climate protection overlaps with a number of subject matters that fall under the concurrent competences of both national and subnational levels. This means that, although subnational governments may not have direct primary competences in the fields of climate and environmental protection, they do have the possibility to substantively influence climate protection indirectly by exercising their legislative and administrative competences in matters linked to climate change, such as transport regulations, energy measures, and land use and spatial plans. How do subnational governments integrate climate change in their subnational policies in Italy and Austria? Are there any factors that may have a positive impact on this integration?

These questions, which are largely understudied, were at the core of the research project ‘Climate change integration in the multilevel governance of Italy and Austria’, financed by the Autonomous Province of Bolzano (Research Südtirol/Alto Adige 2019) from October 2020 to December 2022. The project focused on four case studies, the Autonomous Provinces of Trento and Bolzano in Italy and Länder Tyrol and Vorarlberg in Austria, and on three climate-related policy sectors: transport, energy and water, and spatial planning. The case studies at the border between Italy and Austria were chosen because they are part of the same Alpine geographical area and thus share similar impacts of climate change. What these areas also share is an existing and very active structure for institutional cooperation – the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) Euregio. Although Land Vorarlberg is not a member of this EGTC, it was included as a frontrunner in adopting subnational climate policies and participatory practices in decision-making. The cases also present institutional variation, since the Austrian Länder are part of a Federation, whereas the Italian Provinces enjoy special autonomy arrangements in the framework of a regional state. The policy sectors were chosen by reason of both the relevance of related subnational regulations in terms of climate change mitigation or adaptation and the fact that all case studies hold substantive legislative and/or administrative powers in the selected policy fields. Transport is the main source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the area; energy and water play an important role in mitigation given the centrality of hydropower in the region as a renewable energy source; and spatial planning is both linked with the other two policies and represents a policy field where the selected subnational governments have broad room for maneuver.

The book

The project produced an open access volume titled ‘Climate Change Integration in the Multilevel Governance of Italy and Austria: Shaping Subnational Policies in the Transport, Energy, and Spatial Planning Sectors’ (Brill 2022), which contributes to the literature on environmental policy integration (EPI), as well as to comparative studies on subnational climate governance. The book is organized in three main parts: Part I sets the scene of climate change integration by discussing how climate change is regulated at the EU, national and subnational scales, with a focus on the division of competences among the different levels both in the field of climate protection and in the sectors considered in the analysis; Part II focuses on how climate integration is achieved in the case studies in the three sectors of transport, energy and water, and spatial planning; finally, Part III discusses the main hypothesized factors favoring climate integration in the case studies (see below). The publication of this edited volume would have not been possible without the tireless work of all its authors and, among them, the researchers who collected the primary data. Through document analysis and interviews, this book comes to the conclusion that coordination, leadership, participation, information, and funding are important enabling factors for climate change mainstreaming at subnational level.  

Main hypothesis and methodology

Climate change has been described as a multilevel, multi-sector and multi-actor challenge, and as such climate policies cannot be effective where limited to a discreet ‘climate’ policy area – by definition, climate change must be tackled through the regulation of those policy sectors that have historically created it. In line with this need, “Climate Change Policy Integration” (CPI) is an emerging concept that emphasizes the need for coordination in climate policies. CPI originates in the broader concept of EPI, according to which, in line with the principle of sustainable development, environmental protection goals need to be integrated, or in other words mainstreamed, in all policy fields and decisions that may have an impact on the objective of protecting the environment. Similarly, in order for climate protection and climate goals to be realized, these need to be considered every time policies and decisions that may negatively affect their achievement are adopted.

Given the importance of subnational policymaking, we decided to explore factors that influence CPI at the subnational level. Based on existing literature on EPI and federal studies, we hypothesized these factors to be (i) coordination, (ii) leadership, (iii) participation, (iv) information, and (v) funding. To understand their concrete role in facilitating CPI at subnational levels, we relied on a mixed methodology which combined a Qualitative Document Analysis (QDA) with a set of thirty-nine interviews. For the QDA, we collected the main policy documents (subnational laws, strategies, plans, budgets, information campaigns, electoral program) in the fields of climate protection, transport, energy, water, and spatial development from 2005 onwards, in line with the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that we consider to be a clear milestone in climate governance. Interviews were conducted in all study areas from June to November 2021 with policy officers operating in the same fields as for the QDA and with representatives of civil society organizations. These interviews served to deepen the institutional analysis with an understanding of the reality of CPI in the day-to-day practices of the subnational administrations considered in our study. This allowed us to draw a picture of CPI at subnational level that takes account of its lived reality.

Main results

We found that while vertical coordination among different levels of government is heavily influenced by the different forms of state of the concerned cases and the more established constitutional practices of Austria, horizontal coordination follows similar trajectories via the creation of ad-hoc bodies in the Austrian Länder and the empowerment of existing environmental departments for the Italian Autonomous Provinces. In all cases, informal coordination mechanisms based on the personal initiative and connections of specific officers appeared central, making it impossible to conclude that existing horizontal coordination mechanisms are sustainable. In addition, coordination does not necessarily prevent inconsistencies and fragmentation as hypothesized by the literature, because climate change mitigation and adaptation are often the unintended result of sectoral goals that have different, non-environmental, primary goals, while EU-agreed mitigation goals are overarching to all sectors. For instance, climate protection is the unintended result of other primary goals, especially in the transport and spatial planning sectors.

Leadership, defined in the book as the extent to which there is a clear policy impetus for CPI from politicians or top-level managers, is an undisputed factor in CPI with respect to the influence of EU policies on the medium to long term goals adopted in the case studies. Results concerning the need for specific subnational leadership to concretely influence mitigation and adaptation results were less conclusive. In the face of existing ambitious long-term goals in terms of climate mitigation, second-hand data revealed no appreciable reduction of GHG emissions compared to 1990 levels. A promising element seems to be the newly introduced climate-check in the Austrian cases, a procedure through which all new plans and legislation are evaluated with respect to their capacity to fulfil or at least not to endanger climate protection before they are approved.

Participation and information are interlinked elements that are mainly used to acquire consensus on predefined climate policy measures rather than representing independent factors that may explain CPI in the case studies. A clear finding that emerged is indeed that participation preceded almost all processes leading to the adoption of climate-related cross-sectoral or sectoral strategic documents. What remains missing in all cases is more transparency about how participants are selected: usually participation is not extended to the general public but applies instead to civil society and expert organizations. Even in Vorarlberg, where participation is more consolidated, more transparency appears needed with regard to whether and how contributions from the public are then integrated into final decisions. The presence of professional facilitators in the Province of Trento and in Land Vorarlberg seem to make participation fairer and more reliable. Furthermore, more tailored information campaigns are needed for youth and some marginalized groups such as elderly, migrant communities and economically disadvantaged groups. In this sense, information has the potential to constitute a parameter for the general public to check on climate policies, demand more action, and ultimately steer leadership.

Finally, dedicated climate funding is almost absent in all case studies, with the exception of a small climate fund in the Province of Trento. What is more, as climate protection is the indirect result of activities that have different primary goals, it involved multiple budgets, yet sectoral budgets do not explicitly earmark climate-dedicated resources. As a result, budgets are not easily comparable and future expenditures in the field of climate protection cannot be easily planned.


To conclude, correlations between the five abovementioned factors and CPI are clear, although to different extents and for different aspects. For instance, information and participation are almost non-existent in the phase of policy implementation. Indeed, participation and information seem crucial both for citizens to feel greater ownership over climate policy where they are involved in decision-making and informed about where their points of view are taken into account. Leadership appears to be still very relevant and is still to be improved in policy making. Coordination should be strengthened more with respect to implementation, while greater transparency in subnational budgets would favor especially policy making. Furthermore, all the investigated factors are necessary but not sufficient; their relevance very much depends on the quality of the processes put in place to achieve coordination, participation, information, leadership and funding, revealing the need for more structure and procedures that would make CPI a more systemic element of subnational policy making.

More research is needed on aspects that were not addressed in our research, such as the role of social movements with respect to participation and leadership, as well as the specific role of local governments (municipalities) in CPI as well as intermediate organizations (such as consortia of municipalities), since it emerged that these play a fundamental role in the implementation of subnational policies. Finally, more research is needed on other subnational areas to understand both whether different constitutional arrangements may bring different results, and to collect more empirical data to evaluate the different factors of CPI.

Posted by Federica Cittadino (Senior Researcher in Environmental Law and Policy, Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano, Italy), Louisa Parks (Associate Professor in Political Sociology, School of International Studies, University to Trento, Italy), Peter Bußjäger (Full Professor,  Department for Public Law, State and Administrative Sciences, University of Innsbruck, Austria), and Francesca Rosignoli (Postdoctoral Fellow, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain).