Greta Thunberg shouted outside COP26, “leadership won’t come from inside the building but from the people outside” – and she was right. Local leadership is key to addressing climate change challenges, in fact, our communities have been progressing ahead in a vacuum of political leadership.
As the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow kicked off last Sunday, it marks the deadline for countries to make more ambitious pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The meeting is the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and is being heralded as ‘the last best chance’ to avoid devastating temperature rise that would endanger billions of people and disrupt the planet’s life-support systems.
Countries have a role to play – but so do our towns, villages, cities and regions. All of these trends have local impacts and will require local responses, meaning that effective local governance is critical to Ireland’s wellbeing, now and into the future.
Recently, I experienced the work underway by energy communities on the Aran Islands. Islands are an ideal testbed for renewable solutions because they are often a self-contained micro-grid or, like the Aran Islands, an isolated part of a larger network. In cooperation with NUIG, the islanders recognise that hydrogen has the potential to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels from their transport sector – particularly marine connectivity.
Why COP is so important
To understand why COP26 is so important we need to look back to a previous summit. For example, COP21 in 2015, resulted in the Paris Agreement where countries agreed to work together to keep global warming well below 2℃ and to aim for no more than 1.5℃.
They also agreed to publish plans to show how much they would reduce emissions and to update these pledges every five years — which is what should be happening at the Glasgow summit. Collectively, current climate pledges (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) continue to fall a long way short of limiting global warming to 1.5℃.
On our current trajectory, global temperature is likely to increase well above the 2℃ upper limit of the Paris Agreement, according to a UN report released last week.
Ireland can be a climate leader
For the first time, the most recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has broken these impacts down to a regional level, showing that climate change will affect us all. Our ways of life – urban, coastal and rural – will all be impacted by climate change, with increasingly devastating consequences for lives, livelihoods and nature, unless immediate action is taken.
Our response has been positive, but like always, all plans will come down to implementation. Against a backdrop of COP26, the Irish Government published its new Climate Action Plan, where it commits to a 51% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 2018 levels. The 51% target, according to the Carbon Budget Technical Report, applies to greenhouse gas emissions attributable to industrial, agricultural, energy, land use and other anthropogenic activities in the State.
According to the Government, the proposed carbon budgets should set Ireland on a pathway consistent with a sustainable economy and society. But do we have the systems to accelerate this adaptation?
Our system of local democracy and governance needs to evolve to be fit for the future. Ireland is changing and growing and there are some significant challenges presenting – with issues like Covid-19, future population growth, and climate change.
Empowering the local and regional
Local authorities create the spaces in which people live their lives. They shape the conditions in which people live, work, relax, play and do business – their services determine whether local environments are healthy, safe, easy to navigate, and attractive and whether they create conditions in which people and communities can thrive. Covid-19 is a mirror to the importance of local government. Up and down the country, in response to an emergency, local authorities acted.
Local development also plays many roles in our communities connecting people for shared activities such as sport and recreation or artistic expression, providing vital support services during times of need, uniting communities to address common causes, and creating opportunities to contribute and experience a sense of meaning and purpose. Communities are also a testbed for innovation.
But our system is massively under-resourced and we lack coherence to our regional development approach. We need to modernise the systems and structures designed many years ago to ensure resilience and wellbeing of our communities for generations to come – it’s time to have a conversation about this. There are significant funding, capacity and capability pressures across local and regional authorities at present. We can’t fight a new challenge with an old system.
We need to start seeing local governance as an ecosystem with many contributors and moving parts, which is likely to be most effective when there is collaboration for a common purpose.
Transformational leadership exists. Claremorris, Co Mayo, is a community-building solar farm on an old landfill site, which will generate enough power to supply the town.
These examples exist all over the country and we need to equip our communities with the tools not just for mitigation measures, but to strengthen local governance. We need to engage communities now through stronger local and regional engagement.
If we accept change will come from outside the building, let’s empower our local government and community sector.
David Minton is Director of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly (nwra.ie)