England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development

Councils need to act now to tackle the climate emergency

This article introduces the themes that will be explored in the forthcoming online training: An introduction to tackling the climate emergency for local government.

The 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Global Warming of 1.5oC is clear: human-induced climate change due to the emission of greenhouse gases is likely to result in a global temperature increase of 1.5oC by the middle of the 21st century. As a consequence, the threat to both human and natural systems and the social and economic stability of human society are severe. Current pledges made following the 2015 Paris Agreement fall well short of what is needed to meet the goal of limiting global average temperature increases to these levels. And so, in this year of the COP 26 International Climate Conference in Glasgow, there is much still to do.

The parallels between the threats posed by the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic are stark: the vulnerability of our social system, the impact on livelihoods and the economy, the strain on government spending and public services. Yet there are lessons that we can take forward. We can unite behind the science. We can implement changes to how society operates. We can pull together and modify our behaviour.

Despite multiple pre-existing challenges, it is local authorities that have been at the forefront of the response to Covid; engaging, orchestrating, delivering and leading. Moreover, despite the challenges of the pandemic and the constraints resulting from cuts to funding, councils across the UK have continued to engage, orchestrate, deliver and lead on climate action. And it is local authorities that are leading the way in developing policies for a post-Covid green recovery.

This innovation and leadership is not surprising given the role played by local governments here in the UK and globally since the 1990s in taking action to tackle climate change. Founded in 1990 the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives provided a collective global climate voice for cities and regions. In the UK, local authorities came together to sign the Nottingham Declaration on Climate Change. And, of course, it is local government that has led the way over the past few years in recognising the climate emergency and committing to net zero.

But why is it important for councils to act now? Success in reducing UK emissions has largely been driven by central government with much of the progress to date a result of the shift away from coal for electricity production. But, as set out by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), around a third of UK emissions are under the influence of local authorities and the transformations that are now needed to drive down emissions and deliver net zero require local leadership: changes to land use, transport, buildings, waste, to engage and communicate with communities, businesses and other organisations.

Councils understand the needs of their communities, have democratic accountability and operate at a scale where people and organisations can be engaged. This knowledge means that as well as taking action to deliver net zero, multiple problems can be addressed: facilitating job creation, improving health and wellbeing, reducing poverty, generating income to support public services and tackling poor air quality.

The disparate nature of UK local government as well as the different issues that communities face will mean that the actions that individual councils choose to prioritise will vary. But there will also be commonalities in approach across all local authorities. The CCC recommends that all councils should be looking to:

  • develop a climate action plan
  • engage and communicate with communities, businesses and other organisations
  • collect data, monitor and benchmark
  • review existing policies and spending commitments
  • implement training and capacity building
  • collaborate with other local authorities, public and private sector partners.

COP 26 presents a huge opportunity for the UK to show that it can deliver an economic recovery from Covid that will actively tackle climate change and create a healthier, safer, more prosperous and resilient society. Democratic legitimacy, knowledge of communities plus the influence over emissions that local authorities wield, mean it is essential that councils are front and centre, providing strong local leadership, helping communities pull together and providing hope for the future.

Malcolm Powers is a former councillor and cabinet member in a Unitary Authority with more than 15 years of experience delivering training to local government members and community campaigners.

Book now for An introduction to tackling the climate emergency for local government on the 13th April.

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