Global Climate action and sustainable development

The hard miles on the road to net zero


Photo by Roxanne Desgagnés on Unsplash

Following LGIU’s participation in the ICLEI World Congress 2021 – 2022: The Malmö Summit, we hosted a members-only workshop together with our team of experts and colleagues from the International Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD) on the role of councils on the road to net zero. Our Local Democracy Research Centre (in partnership with Browne Jacobson) will publish a case study based report on the back of this later this year.

We seek to bring communities with us as we pursue a better, more sustainable future. To that end, our session focused on the question of getting communities to net zero when they’re also balancing a range of competing priorities. Our session followed LGIU’s participation in The Malmö Summit. LGIU has a wealth of information on this area already and would encourage you to subscribe to our Global Local newsletter which explores the themes of the conference in-depth.

We were so pleased to have the Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD) with us who are based in Malmö. And while neither of us is a purely climate change-focused organisation, we are both passionate about how local governments can move forward more sustainably and address climate change as local authorities.

First, we heard from LGIU’s Dr Andy Johnston who talked through the research done by LGIU and that we hope to continue to do in this area, as well as how the conference and its topics clarified the issues around net zero. After that, we heard from Ana Maria Vargas, the Research Director at ICLD, about her learnings from the conference and perspective on the next steps for the future.

Comments from Dr Andy Johnston, Chief Operating Officer, LGIU

Andy highlighted that the nature of ICLEI and The Malmö Summit was that of a campaigning organisation and protest group atmosphere. Speaking with Wolfgang Teubner of ICLEI illuminated how they’ve accomplished higher-level policy goals, which is really encouraging. Now the focus is really on the implementation of the practices so that local authorities are able to meet those goals.

At the summit, folks weren’t there to shout about what needs to be done from a stage – but were actually people who are really involved in pursuing net zero at the local level. The ICLEI conference is more about local government delivering on sustainable development and sustainability and included delegates from all over the world. Those places and delegates displayed a wide range of places on the road to net zero; some were much further along than others.

The conference also highlighted how in some ways, net zero is framed as exclusively about climate change and emissions reductions. However, our research shows that local governments are most impactful when approaching net zero through adaptation, rather than through mitigation. It’s also driven largely by politically-motivated targets. And what became evident quickly was a mindset of automatically linking the social and environmental factors so that the net zero projects are not siloed, a really encouraging development.

A bit of context around our research that we did for the Irish local government: they have a very coordinated approach to climate change. The local authorities must come up with action plans which join together linking adaptation, mitigation, and biodiversity agendas in one place. And we helped asked how that links to economic growth and the social aspects. The key principles that we found were that the success of pursuing net zero agenda is dependent on the understanding of the natural assets and infrastructure of their city. Malmö is a great example of this – they’ve adapted from ship-building, industrial city. Ultimately, climate change solutions must be closely tailored to the place, in order to be successful.

Partnerships are also crucial. There are local authorities around the world that have far more power than in the UK and yet they struggle to implement net zero on their own. Local authorities have extremely limited power and that makes partnerships necessary when approaching the net zero agenda. Along that vein, there needs to be an understanding of the local economy and how net zero benefits the community. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a place’s natural resources is key to success, though research is needed to gain that understanding. And without paying for the research, there could be missed opportunities.

Importantly, there are some instances where borrowing an action plan from another local authority just won’t work for a particular place. The most striking example of this is the Thames Meter State in London where there was no social infrastructure or capital in the estate. By contrast, when speaking with the deputy mayor of Malmö, he seemed committed to pursuing net zero, yet also views factors like funding and benefits with a healthy dose of reality. If we want to factor in the net zero agenda, we need a long-term vision and adaptive pathway thinking.

Malmö also presented a unique opportunity to examine the scoping of net zero projects. Scope one of net zero is the local authority itself. Scope two is the procurement side and scope three is the geographical area. The deputy mayor was clear that getting scope one accomplished was a struggle to achieve. So when Malmö reports 98% net zero carbon emissions, that applies to scope one. So if you’re a local authority thinking about how you need to reach net zero and are struggling, don’t panic. Everyone is struggling, even to get to scope one in a meaningful way, amidst making progress.

Clever Cities was another project that Andy was able to dive into. It’s this big Thames meter state in London that has big ambitions for addressing climate change and reaching net zero. He went into the project and was astonished. A Clockwork Orange was filmed there and there are creative funding schemes that have allowed them to fund these types of projects. The major initial step was to build social capital and get a group of local people connected to small grants. They also set up a local committee to see if ideas would work, though it was very difficult to get that involvement. The participants were paid and provided community involvement in that process. Overall they are moving on from the basic projects and into more climate change-focused projects.

So two key points from The Malmö Summit included:

  1. Don’t panic – if you feel like you’re not doing enough to reach net zero, you’re in good company.
  2. Net zero is much more mainstream now and is in the full political debate, which must be a good thing.

Comments from Ana Maria Vargas, Research Director, ICLD

The Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD) an NGO based in Sweden and financed by the Swedish International Cooperation Agency but owned by the Association of Local Authorities, Lund University, and the region of Gotland. They work with local govs in 15 countries and are starting a global network for local governments pursuing climate action. Over the next three years, they will work together with local governments in Sweden and some African countries to discuss how to approach climate action.

From ICLEI, the learnings around technical innovations and solutions were very interesting, but they’re not always accessible to the majority of the world. One example of this inaccessibility is that we can’t fly yet, using solar. The realist is that we are still lagging in the implementation and political gains surrounding net zero. When we see protestors making statements on the cost of living, we can see that we’re not all moving in the same direction. It’s important to listen to those citizens who are speaking up and addressing their needs through local democracy.

One fascinating resource Ana Maria learned about was Climate View, a free tool for local governments to help them create effective climate action plans. It helps local authorities see how to see how different municipal elements interact and the tradeoffs of CO2 emissions while approaching climate change. For example, it would help illustrate if a local government was investing in transportation and reducing emissions but also seeing negative impacts on childcare services. It is a great tool for getting citizens on board to the options and tradeoffs that come with pursuing climate action.

One issue I came across when speaking with politicians was that net zero is not a popular topic for voters. Politicians are struggling to get elected on the platform of climate change and one additional barrier we’re seeing is that populism is rising.  One of the politicians mentioned that they are struggling because they’re trying to shift to wind power, but citizens don’t want the turbines near their homes. Another politician explained that gas prices in Sweden are relatively cheap, and yet citizens are still complaining. And we had another representative from the Pacific island whose island is sinking, and in India where people die on the street from heat. Climate change doesn’t give easy answers to these issues and yet politicians need to find solutions.

ICLEI helped us see that climate change is a global problem and cooperation is absolutely crucial. Fraternity and solidarity need to be our driving forces – it doesn’t matter how much one local government does if a municipality at the other end of the world doesn’t also put in the work to fight climate change. Empathy and holistic problem solving are also of the utmost importance: we need to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.

While the problems we encountered at Malmö were daunting, the solutions Ana Maria heard at the conference were also inspiring. The mayor of Malmö said, “my job is facilitating a net zero lifestyle for my citizens. I want to facilitate a city where people can use bikes, be safe, appreciate the ocean, and have an understanding of what happens with their waste.” And this was an energising framework of how to approach net zero as a local authority.

Another thing Ana Maria explored was the contrast in the normal exclusive, high-end atmosphere of most conferences and how The Malmö Summit really focused on bringing participants into the city from the ground up. For example, the conference hosted a food truck dinner which illustrated how migration is an answer to addressing climate change – not a problem. We need citizens on board and really, the biggest challenge is facilitating this climate-friendly lifestyle so that citizens don’t see it as a punishment or sacrifice, but as a joy.

Core discussion areas following thoughts from audience members:

One LGIU member commented: “One of the crucial factors is being able to demonstrate the co-benefits to citizens when investing in net zero. One example of this is the regeneration of Augustenburg. They were able to show, in direct ways, the changes that they had made. For example, one of these changes was the diversion of floodwaters. Malmö, in particular, has been able to demonstrate those co-benefits well.”

Another LGIU member noted: “One of the biggest challenges is the cost of living crisis combined with the food crisis. It does seem that climate change seems to be slipping down as a priority. Residents right now are concerned with how to put food on the table and asking citizens to commit large sums of money to climate change when the inflation rate is at 9-11% is tough. Asking them to insulate their houses better is essential but is going to be hard at this moment in time. So it’s important that local authorities do what they can as funds become available from the central government. Local authorities know what they’d like to do but often don’t have the funding to implement meaningful change. It’s interesting that everyone is struggling with how to pursue net zero, especially considering that it’s difficult to convince our citizens to prioritize this when other authorities across the world might not be. It’s also wise to note that politicians’ minds tend to be rather short-term – always focused on the next election instead of longer-term solutions.”

A final LGIU member chimed in: “It would be powerful to have a very simple and clear list of powers that local authorities actually have and examples of how councils have used it. That would really help with our understanding of how to move forward.”

Further opportunities to ask questions

Please feel free to direct any questions to Alice Creasy, LGIU’s Policy and Partnerships Officer and she would be happy to discuss net zero further. And we look forward to hosting further events on this topic and others. Get in touch at [email protected] to let us know what you’d like us to cover.


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