England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Democracy, devolution and governance

Building Democratic Consent for Net Zero


Auckland, New Zealand - November 28, 2015: Thousands rally for action on climate change around New Zealand. A separate budget of US$40 million has been allotted for climate change research since 1990.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, once again, makes for grim reading and makes an urgent demand for action at all levels. The barrier, it seems is the political will to change. The climate crisis needs to be tackled at multiple levels, with coordination internationally and nationally, but also locally and with the support of communities. Councils have influence over significant sources of emissions, established local networks, detailed knowledge of their communities, and democratic accountability.

In terms of having the will to turn things around, councils are also at the forefront of working with the public to drive changes in our behaviour, our work, our buildings, and the communities we live in, all of which will be essential to achieving net-zero. But they can not do it without support and capacity. We need the right funding, governance and partnerships directed in the right places.

Public support is not just “nice to have” when it comes to achieving net zero. It is a necessary component of achieving our lower emissions targets in local places and across the country. Democratic engagement is important because it helps to:

  • implement changes in behaviour,
  • lowers the risk of resistance to new plans, spending and infrastructure,
  • helps to educate and inform,
  • builds trust, inclusion and legitimacy.

In an upcoming paper, based on research LGIU has carried out in partnership with Browne Jacobson, we will highlight some of the challenges that councils face in maintaining public support for and understanding of net-zero in midst of the rising cost of living, fuel prices and other challenges to public services. Through interviews with local authority officers and councillors we are looking at how councils are building and maintaining local support net zero and what the challenges associated with maintaining net zero as a priority are.

The cost of living crisis has impacted councils’ capacity for important net zero programmes like retrofit, which require investment, capacity and public support. One officer from a district council told us their communications with residents has shifted to take new priorities and pressures into account. They are pushing “climate positive messaging, but it’s actually much more about the cost of living and a money-saving message now”.

Citizens assemblies are just one tool out that some councils have used help to create the social mandate to move forward on socially-inclusive climate action. By co-producing and including citizens’ input into designing solutions they help increase public trust and ensure publics are on board and more receptive to any conditions (behavioural or other) that are implemented (Warren and Gastil 2015).

Officers and councillors we interviewed for this research agreed with this principle and stressed the importance of working in partnership with local stakeholders, residents, business, public and third sector, across local places in order to deliver net zero strategies. As well as highlighting the challenges, the report will propose a set of principles for action that can help councils to maintain public focus on achieving these goals.

The report will make the case for working with communities on delivering net zero and the need for greater capacity in local government to do so. It will highlight the challenges that councils report in terms of funding, capacity and skills to support democratic engagement, as well as strategies for improving communications, persuasion and support in current circumstances.



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