Hannah Callingham 05 August 2020

Are enough local governments acting on climate emergency declarations?

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of councils in England have declared a climate emergency. The race to net zero is well underway, with 77% of councils saying they are planning towards net zero operation by 2050, and 23% by 2030.

Local government plays an important role in supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy. Establishing regional climate change strategies, policies, and networks to communicate to local businesses, community groups and individuals will be critical in delivering net zero ambitions.

Targets set by local government impact other big organisations within their region including the NHS and schools. Collaborating with neighbouring organisations and creating partnerships facilitates resource sharing and economies of scale, which will help local government overcome barriers such as access to funding, lack of engagement, resourcing, and climate credentials.

There has been a notable increase in collaborative sustainability strategies, with many local authorities developing area-wide programmes that incorporate district and county council, combined authority, educational organisations, NHS and healthcare organisations, local transport networks, local partnerships, businesses and charities. This forward-thinking approach creates holistic strategies that can streamline decision-making and integrate carbon reduction initiatives across a region. These collaborative programmes benefit from creating long-term strategic networks which envelope the entirety of activities and operations, which are often excluded from the scope of individual strategies.

Public transport has a key role to play in all of this, with transport contributing 33% of UK carbon emissions. COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to invest in active travel initiatives and encourage shifts in behaviours that can help to reduce carbon emissions, such as home working and ‘Go Ultra Low Cities’ movements. Lockdown restrictions have indicated what net zero carbon needs to look like in terms of improved air quality and low-emission behaviours.

Alongside the environmental benefits associated with carbon reduction, delivering on net zero commitments could create up to 700,000 green jobs by 2030; which would aid the recovery from the looming economic recession.

Whilst councils are actively recognising the fact that there is a climate emergency, could there still be a lack of reactionary initiatives and programmes? Just 53% of councils have a strategy in place to reduce the carbon emissions from housing, offices, and other buildings. Declaring a climate emergency and not putting in place the required initiatives and actions could discredit a council’s commitment to net zero.

Declaring a climate emergency is a first step in the right direction. Local government should look to lead the way on how to deliver net zero. Unless councils start to develop and deliver climate change strategies, we will struggle to meet our previous 80% reduction target let alone net zero by 2050.

So, why are some local authorities struggling to use climate action to evidence their declarations?

Poor data quality

Only 57% of councils measure their energy use of council-owned buildings. Recording accurate data enables robust target setting and general understanding of where carbon reduction efforts should be focussed.

Limited funding

There is a pre-conception that net zero is going to be extremely expensive. Achieving net zero operations will need sufficient funding, yet there are significant savings and co-benefits to be had with short payback periods, including improving energy efficiency, such as lighting, heating, and applying circular economy principles. During the post-pandemic recovery, councils may be presented with local green finance options which can facilitate the delivery of sustainable development.

A lack of understanding of net zero ambitions

Without a clear climate change strategy, members of a council may be unaware of their responsibilities or requirements to reduce carbon footprint within their realm of work. By allocating tasks and timeframes, councils will be able to prioritise climate action and track progress.

A lack of resourcing and expertise of net zero implementation

Delivering net zero carbon is a relatively new challenge for the UK, and it will take creativity and a bit of bravery to deliver. It is not an easy task and understandably many public sector organisations are generally unprepared for the action needed to tackle the challenge of net zero by 2050. Training, collaboration across the sector, learning from experts, and engagement activities that ask for and listen to ideas can assist in incorporating various strategies to create a council specific roadmap to net zero carbon.

To tackle the climate emergency for future generations, net zero is 'necessary, feasible and cost-effective'. Key strategies, plans, and policies must consider whole life costing and value for money if we are to build low-carbon, healthier and more resilient communities.

Now is the time to start building the foundations of a climate change strategy which includes a breakdown of their carbon emission against an appropriate baseline. This roadmap should outline how the climate change strategy will be delivered, funded, and measured, reinforcing the net zero ambition to inspire local businesses, industry, and wider society.

Hannah Callingham is from the sustainability team at ETL

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