More than just blah, blah, blah

By Heather Jameson | 09 November 2021

We all know the world has a problem with global warming. We have known for decades – but there has not been enough action. In 2020 CO2 emissions were higher than any other year on record.

It’s clear what we need to do – but we are not doing enough, fast enough. As world leaders meet in Glasgow, the lack of action is becoming increasingly apparent.

Prior to the COP26 event, The MJ and Local Partnerships gathered some of local government’s leaders on climate change for a webinar to ask just what can local government do as part of the efforts to avoid a climate crisis?

Local Partnerships’ climate response lead Jo Wall sets the scene.

While COP21 in 2015 led to the Paris Agreement – a landmark accord to address climate change and keep global warming down below two degrees of pre-industrial levels – it didn’t cut through to the public.

By 2018, there was clear evidence of global warming, the emergence of Greta Thunberg and the rise of Extinction Rebellion, all of which led to increased awareness and public protests.

‘Local government reacted to this groundswell of opinion in an unprecedented way, with the majority of councils declaring a climate emergency within 12 months,’ she says. ‘By June of 2019 the UK Government had set into legislation a legally binding commitment to reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050.’

Now, as we hold COP26, there is increasing physical evidence of global warming, and the UK is under intense international scrutiny. Simply declaring a climate emergency is no longer enough.

‘Targets, strategies and plans alone will not achieve the comprehensive change we need to see.’ What we need, she says, is leadership, messaging and narrative. We understand what we need to do, it is the scale and pace that is lacking.

It is a recurring theme across all our speakers. Local Partnerships’ chief executive Sean Hanson said he is a huge supporter of Greta Thunberg – but that came with the dawning realisation that he was one of the men in suits she accused of inaction. That has motivated him even further to drive change professionally and personally.

There is, we hear, the chance of technology coming to our aid. While high tech solutions to climate change issues may not be affordable now, they will gradually become more affordable as they become popular. But, Mr Hanson suggests: ‘There needs to be the initial push to develop the market and the proactive identification and removal of barriers…local government has a powerful role to play.’

Councils can also lead locally by example, using their knowledge of communities and place – and their convening powers across a wide range of partners – to drive change. As Mr Hanson says: ‘Local government is also a more trusted voice in our communities…we need to leverage that trust and take control of the climate response narrative.’

It will be vital to take that lead, to corral local businesses and partners, if we are to meet climate targets. COP26 may not be a panacea to all our climate change problems, but it has brought environmental issues into the media and the attention of the public – and that will go a long way towards provoking action.

But after this two-week climate event is over, it will be down to the UK Government and local leaders to ‘ensure the momentum is maintained’, Mr Hanson argues. Post pandemic, the trust that councils have built up should be channelled into making change happen.

Rotherham MBC chief executive and Solace climate change spokesperson Sharon Kemp agrees local government will need to tap into the national and international activity and leadership. ‘That’s why I think COP26 is vital, to shape the international response to climate change, and to set that ambition and set the framework around regulatory, legislative, fiscal and monetary…those are really vital tools for us at a local level.

‘We all know we live in a global world…acting together and seeing those international displays of collaboration are absolutely vital. We need to be able to tap into that at a local level.’

The scale of the work is ‘unprecedented’ but councils are in the position to make things happen. She added: ‘We need clear leadership from central government on policy and strategy.’

As well as that national and local policy, there needs to be a shift in pace, rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, retrofitting – taking action across the board.

‘We need to think about what we need at a local level and how we make it happen, and work collaboratively with Government to create a long-term strategy that we can deliver over the next few years,’ Ms Kemp says. She calls on councils to harness the energy used to tackle the pandemic, and use that scale and pace in the same way, adapting for climate change as part of the recovery.

‘We should be bold,’ she states. ‘We should make our voices clear.’ She calls on councils to lobby constructively nationally, influence regionally and collaborate locally, and she adds: ‘A longer-term investment in a funding model is absolutely critical so we can put action in place.’

Coventry City Council chief executive Martin Reeves chairs a health and social care environmental group, and he says the West Midlands has a strong environmental record. ‘But I will put my hand up and say, I need to do better. Our city, our regions need to do better, and individuals at all levels, need to do better. It is not good enough.

‘It is a wicked issue. It doesn’t mean it is not solvable but it will not be solved by traditional, straight line management action.’ But it does mean it is really hard professionally, politically, and for people.

He aims to ‘create a green circular economy’. The climate emergency, he says, will only be delivered ‘by a systems view of our places, an inter-connected view well beyond hierarchical power, well beyond organisations’.

He highlights the ‘pivotal role’ of local government in shaping places around this agenda, pulling together the anchor institutions. ‘It is something we should not be anything other than incredibly audacious and bold about.’

‘This is going to transcend our electoral cycles,’ he points out and while it may be tough politically, ‘no one will forgive us for not acting on this’.

‘Local government has got a convening role; it has got the legitimacy – even if it is constrained by its lack of fiscal capacity. There are a few things that councils are doing – but they can do more.’

He claims councils can lead, bringing stakeholders on board with a common vision, holding them to account to deliver on this agenda.

Sometimes it is about saying this is not good enough. Mr Reeves says: ‘We are clear about what we expect from our inward investors, our funders, our residents…This is unacceptable in our city, in our town in our county: this is not acceptable here.’

There are barriers. This is going to be expensive, and it will need strong political leadership. ‘The [Treasury investment rules] Green Book will have to be completely reimagined,’ he says.

‘We either blink, and we decide to do it half well, or we have this conversation…I think local authorities with Government have to fill that space.’

And while we need pace, he suggests there will need to be patience as well. ‘This will take decades and decades to deliver a sustainable set of green circular economies, and also a kind of life and communities we would expect for generations to follow.

‘We can’t allow ourselves to be knocked off course because it is simply too important.’

Cornwall Council chief executive Kate Kennally agrees there are parallels with how people came together for COVID-19. And there is an opportunity offered by COVID, she suggests, to embed environmental impacts into the rebuilding process and to take the opportunity of not returning to pre-pandemic norms.

Although councils have declared climate emergencies, Ms Kennally suggest that people need to start seeing the difference they can make. ‘How do we human-scale an existential threat and enable people to play their part?’ she asks. ‘That’s where I think we have got to pay attention.’

Engagement is crucial, messages must be simple and every behaviour change tactic must be used to bring on board businesses, stakeholders and individuals – right down to making every member of staff and councillor an advocate for the aims of the authority. ‘Green champions need to get the message out in more informal ways,’ she says.

She believes the council has to ensure it is not just preaching to the converted, but also those who are less engaged in an effort to reach a tipping point. Cornwall is using tech to communicate with residents, and working with schools and young people.

‘To truly define the role of local government and how they resource and effect behaviour change, there does need to be a step change in the relationship between local and central government,’ Ms Kennally says.

‘I think it is through strong public sector leadership that we create the conditions…to deliver the environment and social conditions to allow our communities to thrive and meet the UK’s net-zero commitments.’

When it comes to lobbying, now is the time. Mr Hanson says: ‘If anyone is of the misunderstanding that there are people in central government who are deaf, or who don’t understand there is an emergency, then you just need to speak to them…there is a huge number of people in central government who have a passion to do something.’

But he adds: ‘It has never been more important for local government to speak with a clear and joined up voice for what is needed from central government.

‘There is an open door. Central government needs to know how and where to listen.’

Local Partnerships and The MJ are holding a series of podcasts on what COP26 means for local government throughout the Glasgow event. You can find COP26CAST online at https://localpartnerships.org.uk/our-resources/ or https://www.themj.co.uk/podcasts

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