Sue Riddlestone 13 July 2020

Seize the moment for a greener future

If you are an officer or a councillor who wants to see more action on sustainability, then your local authority declaring a climate and ecological emergency was great news! But now the pressure is on you as the in-house sustainability, climate or nature champion, as the whole council turns to you and asks, 'What do we need to do now then?'

Of course, this is not just a task for you, everyone else in the local authority needs to own it and make it part of every decision. Yet at the same time, we are all reeling from the impact of COVID-19 on our communities and now need to make decisions about where to focus efforts to support our local economies and address inequalities. The pandemic has had tragic consequences – but it is also showing us just what can be achieved in a short space of time in an emergency if we pull together.

And the public wants action and change. A recent YouGov poll showed that just 6% of people want to see a return to how the economy was run before Coronavirus, while 60% want a big or a moderate change. And climate is still important to them too. In a poll by Opinium, 48% of respondents agreed that the government should respond with the same urgency to climate change as it has with COVID-19.

At Bioregional we have worked with local government on every kind of sustainability initiative for over 25 years. Most recently we have been supporting a number of local authorities with the important first steps needed after declaring a climate emergency. In Greater Cambridge we are helping them set a route map to net zero carbon, and in Oxfordshire we are supporting a network of local councils, businesses, schools and community groups to work together on a shared vision for a better future for the region.

With over 70% of local authorities in the UK having now declared a climate and ecological emergency, we wanted to understand better what you need to tackle it.

So, this spring we carried out a survey, working with researchers from Just Ideas, getting the views of 47 respondents from the UK and internationally. You told us that the key enabler of action is staff awareness of, and commitment to, sustainability. You also told us that there is still a need for stronger leadership, coupled with a holistic council-wide cross-cutting approach. This is something that was borne out in the work with Cherwell District Council this year, where workshops and a communications campaign to engage officers and members following their climate emergency declaration has sparked an exciting conversation about new possibilities for the area.

Access to funding to invest in solutions or staff is seen as the main barrier to action. But if we make the case well, I think that is going to change, as the government and business begin to recognise the key role of local authorities in a green recovery from the pandemic.

Recent studies, including from the IPPR, are showing just how many new, economically sustainable jobs and businesses we can create. They include the 560,000 new jobs for builders and trades to upgrade our homes with insulation and renewable energy technologies, and the opportunities for small shopkeepers as we re-imagine our high streets. Then there are the 230,000 new jobs involved in creating sustainable transport infrastructure, and 46,000 new jobs in nature restoration and tree planting – which can be a cost-effective nature-based solution to avoid damaging and costly flooding of communities.

We have seen for ourselves the huge interest in this through our Greentech business network which we set up with Oxford councils and other partners.

For the past few months many of us have been focused on making sure we, and our organisations, survive the pandemic. As we slowly emerge from it, we must seize this moment. This is the time right now for us to rise to the challenge, and with public opinion behind us, to re-shape our communities to go carbon neutral, fostering equality and local employment that’s truly sustainable and fit for the future.

Sue Riddlestone OBE is CEO & co-founder of Bioregional

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