Backgrounder: Climate change & biodiversity for local government
Author: Alice Creasy
Date of publication: 11th of May 2022
This is one in a series of primers from the LGIU: in-depth introductions for councillors to the work of local authorities in the UK across key topics.
Our website is home to a vast range of material written to support councillors and local authority officers in the work that they do. From detailed policy briefings to comment pieces, we provide analysis, insight, ideas and courses and events. You can browse the website by topic or just take a look at our most recent content.
Introduction: why is sustainability an important issue for councils?
Over the last decade, the climate crisis has transitioned from a distant threat to lived reality. From extreme weather events and sea-level rise to conflict, food insecurity and huge economic and personal costs, the changing climate is already having dramatic implications for all life on earth.
While the UK is likely to escape the most extreme impacts of the climate crisis for now, its effects are still severe and pose a serious risk to life as well as having devastating impacts on infrastructure and the economy. Issues such as extreme heat, flooding sea level rise and vector borne disease all pose a direct and serious challenges which the UK remains unprepared for.
These trends are likely to have huge economic and social costs. Damage to infrastructure and local economies as a result of extreme weather events means that tens of billions of pounds are likely to be lost from the economy. The social costs of climate change will put a significant strain on already overburdened health and social care services to the extent that The World Health Organisation has labelled the climate crisis “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century”. This statement points not only to the physical impact of climate change but also the growing importance of its effect on mental health. Associated with physical risks of climate change are various forms of mental trauma and shock due to physical injuries, loss of loved ones, damage to property and uncertainty about the future.
Alongside the direct physical impacts of the climate crisis the UK will continue to be affected by the extreme impacts of climate change in other parts of the world where many regions have already surpassed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Issues of migration, conflict, biodiversity loss, pandemics, supply chains and food security are all challenges that have already impacted the UK and will continue to worsen as the climate crisis escalates.
What Aspects of sustainability are councils responsible for?
This can be a tricky question to answer as sustainability needs to be looked at holistically and will impact every service that a council provides. Key areas where councils can make a big difference in reducing emissions and implementing adaptation measures include: transport; planning; emergency management; parks and greenspace; waste; retrofit and energy in public buildings; procurement and encouraging behaviour change.
However, even services that may not fit obviously into the ‘sustainability’ box play a key role and must be part of the conversation. For example, Social services departments work with some of the local authorities’ most vulnerable people who will be hit hardest by the impacts of climate change. By including them in conversations around climate change and resilience the local authority will help to ensure their needs are being accounted for.
While councils are responsible for a range of public services, the fact remains that the UK has one of the most centralised government systems. This, combined with a chronic lack of resource and capacity, means that council actions to reduce emissions or improve adaptation are often constrained.
- Has your Council Declared a Climate Emergency? Ten things councillors can do to drive action for net zero
- Events and training for local authorities
Some key questions for new councillors in a scrutiny role
A recent Improvement Service briefing sets out a number of questions for new councillors to consider. These include:
Community leadership and partnership working
- How are the council’s climate ambitions communicated externally and are the local community involved in design and delivery?
- How is the council engaging and working with local actors such as Community Planning Partnerships?
Decision making and scrutiny
- Is your council adopting a clear, detailed and costed approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation?
- How does your council ensure decisions have a climate lens?
- How is the council embedding climate change mitigation and adaptation into all strategies and plans, particularly economic development, energy and transport?
- How does the council identify those most vulnerable to climate change and is this recognised in the approach?
- Is the relationship between climate change policies and other priorities understood and is this the basis for policy and activity?
Sustainability in 2022
Councils face a number of challenges and opportunities when it comes to implementing sustainability measures over the coming years. These can be broadly broken down into three key areas:
1. Net zero
The climate crisis is a serious and pressing threat to life in the UK and across the world. In response to this, as of February 2021 74% of District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan councils had declared a climate emergency. Many councils have set the target of becoming net zero by 2030 with some aiming for 2025, others for 2050. Worryingly, recent analysis has shown that one in five UK councils has no climate action plan.
For those councils that have a net zero plan, the vast majority focus on scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. While this is a good start, to facilitate broader change councils need to be given the power and the resources to be able to, at least partially, tackle scope 3 emissions.
- Mitigation- Mitigation, or mitigating emissions, means any effort that attempts to reduce the production of greenhouse gas emissions, such as replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. (The Embra Collective)
- Net Zero/ Carbon Neutral- Net zero or carbon neutral means overall greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide in particular) are as close to zero as possible. This involves any action that removes as much carbon in the atmosphere as is put into it. While some emissions are still being generated, these emissions are being offset somewhere else making the overall emissions net zero. (The Embra Collective)
- Types of carbon emissions:
From the Carbon Trust: Greenhouse gas emissions are categorised into three groups or ‘Scopes’ by the most widely-used international accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol.
Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain.
Relevant LGiU content:
The LGiU’s website holds a vast archive of content on the challenges and opportunities associated with working towards net zero targets. Drawing on case studies from across the world, these briefings are tailored to a local government audience and include practical recommendations for achieving net zero across a range of sectors. Key briefings include:
- Beyond efficiency in net zero housing: how councils can reduce embodied carbon
- 20-min neighbourhoods
- Energy efficient housing: social landlords cutting carbon on the road to net zero
- Swift read: helping social landlords in Scotland achieve net zero
- Hydrogen as a clean energy carrier: introduction and opportunities for local authority climate action
- Leading from the front line: supporting local government to deliver net zero to deliver net zero
- Hotting up: the growth of district heat networks
2. Adaptation and resilience
While net zero commitments are absolutely necessary, the fact is that Climate change is happening now and will have a direct impact on local communities, whether UK councils meet their net zero ambitions or not.
Despite this, numerous reports from organisations such as the Climate Change Committee have found that the UK is not prepared for the impacts of climate change, which pose a serious danger to lives, health, infrastructure, economies and supply chains. With this in mind, adaptation needs to be prioritised at all levels of government.
- Adaptation: Adaptation is the process of adapting and reducing vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Examples include building flood defences, reforestation, and developing evacuation plans. (The Embra Collective)
- Resilience: While both adaptation and resilience are complex and interlinked concepts, the term ‘resilience’ is particularly difficult to pin down. Broadly, this term means the ability of an individual, community, organisation or system to absorb, withstand and bounce back after an adverse event. The term ‘community resilience’ is often thrown about in discussions around adaptation and climate change however, there is no common, agreed definition as to what this term means in practice. Despite the lack of agreed definition, core elements such as local knowledge, community networks and relationships, communication, health, governance and leadership, resources, economic investment, preparedness and mental outlook are all considered key in community resilience.
Relevant LGiU content:
Adaptation is an important issue for the LGiU and one which we have covered extensively. From extreme weather events and to nature-based solutions, to doughnut economics and recovering from COVID, click on the links below to find out more.
- Weathering the storm: climate change adaptation and local government
- How can nature-based infrastructure provide solutions to flooding? A global look at adoption
- How will the UK Government’s climate change risk assessment impact local authorities?
- Flood resilience and recovery
- Severe weather: building climate resilient communities
- Town and city: Sustainability, recovery and resilience
- Doughnut Economics: a lifebelt for the planet?
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth. Unsurprisingly, this is hugely complex and comprises of several levels layers from genes, to individual species, to communities, and finally, to entire ecosystems such as tundra, coral reefs and forests, where life interplays with the physical environment. Biodiversity is vital to all life on earth, however at the moment it is facing unprecedented levels of collapse and crisis. As writer Coreen Grant puts it: The environmental crisis is not singular but plural. Britain, like the rest of the world, faces two crises: the rise in temperatures and the decline of nature.
Despite this, much like adaptation, the biodiversity crisis is often overlooked. For example, while over 74% of councils have declared a climate emergency, less than 15% have declared an Ecological Emergency. However, slow progress is being made with many councils implementing plans such as Local Nature Recovery Strategies and engaging with the Scottish Biodiversity Delivery Plan.
- Sixth Mass Extinction– The Sixth Mass Extinction refers to an ongoing extinction event of species during the epoch of the Anthropocene as a result of human activity. Included extinctions comprise numerous families of plants and species of animals alongside widespread degradation of biodiverse ecosystems and habitats such as coral reefs and rainforests. The vast majority of these extinctions remain undocumented and the current rate of extinction of species is estimated at 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background rates. (The Embra Collective)
- Nature based solutions- Nature-based solutions (NbS) involve working with nature to address societal challenges, providing benefits for both human well-being and biodiversity. Specifically they are actions that involve the protection, restoration or management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems; the sustainable management of aquatic systems and working lands such as croplands or timberlands; or the creation of novel ecosystems in and around cities. They are actions that are underpinned biodiversity and are designed and implemented with the full engagement and consent of local communities and Indigenous Peoples. (Nature-based Solutions Initiative)
Relevant LGiU content
Our content on biodiversity includes pieces about nature capital, Local Nature Recovery Strategies and case studies from across the UK. Click on the links below to find out more.
Key issues for the next four to five years
Essentially, we are not delivering what is needed, fast enough to prevent (or even effectively mitigate the impacts of) the climate and ecological collapse. Funding constraints and the seemingly endless cycle of crisis mean that many local authorities have been unable to concentrate resources on sustainability issues. This has left councils with three key challenges when tackling this issue:
Making change happen fast enough
The pace and scale of change that is needed is significant. The climate and ecological emergencies need to be prioritised at every level of government. While this is a significant challenge for local authorities, there are examples of councils across the country that are moving in a positive direction. At the LGiU our briefings and blogs explore good practice case studies from across the world.
Funding and capacity
Funding is, of course, a constant challenge for local authorities. Without national government support many of the necessary changes will not be possible. The pandemic has shown us the power and importance of local authorities. The lessons of this period must not be forgotten and local authorities must work together and with their communities to demand systemic change. To learn more check out our briefing on Greening Public Finance.
Taking communities with you
Without community buy-in the systemic, wide-spread change that is necessary will not be sustainable. While councils are in a challenging position, they play a vital role in helping communities adapt to the changes that are required. This will mean prioritising a just transition, accessible communication strategies and setting up processes of deliberative democracy. The LGiU has an archive of briefings on this topic including pieces on participatory budgeting and transport planning, behaviour change and the importance of putting communities at the heart of the transition to net zero.
As noted in the latest IPCC report, cooperation across different levels of government and between different sectors will be vital in effectively tackling the climate emergency. By forming partnerships with private, third and other public sector actors local authorities will be better able to provide the services needed to reduce emissions and build resilience. To learn more check out our briefing on the community sector’s role in leading local sustainable development and recovery as a public services partner.
Keep up to date on climate change and sustainable development with LGIU
From policy roundtables to learning and development online seminars and in house training, the LGiU offers a range of events and training covering different aspects of the climate emergency. Have a look at our training and events page to learn more and book your place.
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