Climate emergency declarations – what next?

The UK Government recognises the need for greater climate action, with a 2050 net zero target now enshrined in law.

Scottish and Welsh governments have also adopted higher levels of ambition.

Having declared a climate emergency, what now? While agreeing there is an urgent challenge, many local authorities lack the technical resources, practical skills and, crucially, the appropriate financing to act.

They want to take a lead and to transform – some even setting local net zero goals – yet lack capacity to deliver this change.

“Councils want to take a lead and to transform – some even setting local net zero goals – yet lack capacity to deliver this change

In the early 2000s, the Carbon Trust, supported by the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments, helped public bodies to develop carbon management plans, setting ambitious yet achievable carbon reduction targets for their own estates and operational activities, underpinned by investment and delivery plans.

Over a 10-year period, we worked with hundreds of public bodies, developing structured plans to drive emissions reductions, simultaneously achieving significant operational cost savings.

Alongside several other mechanisms and policies, this drove a tangible reduction in public sector carbon emissions, contributing important progress towards the UK’s world-leading carbon targets. This was also particularly successful in getting climate change onto senior management agendas, rather than leaving it solely as a focus for energy and environment teams.

Following the financial crisis and stringent austerity measures, however, the public sector was forced to narrow its focus on delivering core services. Many staff who had responsibility for energy efficiency and sustainability have been lost.

Momentum is now building again under the climate emergency banner; to consolidate this, local authorities will need help to translate words into action. For example, a reporting framework, or at least a degree of standardisation, is needed to focus efforts with coherence across the UK.

We also need mandatory carbon reduction targets for the UK public sector aligned with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5oC limit to global heating. This would facilitate allocation of funding to ensure local plans receive the resourcing needed.

Support and direction is overdue, given the increasing recognition in the UK and internationally that local government is a pivotal player in the transition to low carbon. Carbon reduction strategies now need to reach beyond the boundaries of organisations’ own estates and operations; the climate emergency requires targets and pathways that drive change on a district, city-wide and regional level.

Although challenging, this is undoubtedly crucial to achieve change at scale, capitalising on the convening powers of local authorities and leveraging stakeholder engagement, support and investment.

In the Leeds City Region, for example, the Carbon Trust helped West Yorkshire Combined Authority to set science-based targets for decarbonising the local energy system and to create a pipeline of transformational ‘green growth’ interventions, including multiple heat network schemes, to help meet those targets.

With the UK’s new legally binding net zero target, local authorities have an opportunity to take the lead on carbon emissions reduction. They can only do this by treating it as an urgent strategic priority – in turn empowering access to required resources – with measureable actions reported within clear frameworks.

Without this, all we have are words and good intentions: declarations of climate emergencies without tangible and practical emergency response.


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