Weighing up the reality of net zero: nemesis or global hero?

By Heather Jameson | 27 April 2021

In the run-up to COP26 – the United Nation’s 26th climate change conference which will be held in Glasgow in November – local government has turned its attention to how it will tackle the climate crisis and put the environment at the heart of COVID recovery.

The MJ gathered a collection of council chiefs, along with climate change experts from Local Partnerships, for a virtual discussion. The passion for taking action is palpable – but the belief in central Government’s ability to help make things happen is nowhere to be seen.

While many councils have declared a climate emergency, it is not enough. ‘You can declare anything you like, but if you are not doing stuff, what’s the point?’ we are asked. It is action that will make a difference, and our assembled council chiefs are all taking action on the ground.

‘We’ve got a pretty sound plan to get to net zero by 2030, like many others. That is looking at buildings, looking at vehicles, but there is still a big gap. We are going to have to do offsetting, and we are going to have to do offsetting at significant scale. And that’s just carbon,’ one chief explains.

And while their own carbon footprint is important, it is just a small part of what needs to be addressed.

When you look at the breakdown of carbon emissions, around a third come from domestic power, a third from commercial property and a third from transport – although one of our debaters also adds, to much amusement, that they also have a problem with ‘flatulent cows’.

‘Two of the big blocks [of carbon emissions] are almost all in private hands,’ it is suggested. In order to really start making a difference, it is tackling emissions from domestic properties, offices and private transport that will make a difference. ‘Somehow, we need to bring in private capital for that.’

One council chief describes their carbon neutral 2030 strategy which is built on three principal functions: as an exemplar, as an enabler and an encourager. ‘It is those three key roles for me that the Government needs to recognise.’

Another of our debaters says their authority is focused on its leadership and convener role, concentrating on changing behaviour in the key local institutions, setting an example for others using the big local players like hospitals and universities.

While a third person suggests they have a further three roles they are concentrating on, as an amplifier, an investor and a disruptor.

‘We have built solar farms, we own them. We rejigged our pension funds, we run large pollinator policies, we run a hydrogen fleet, we are playing with electricals. We are doing a lot,’ they say. ‘We are talking about air quality, we are talking about rivers, we are talking about countryside, we are talking about diversity. For me, that is the agenda.’

They add: ‘If this agenda is going to catch fire then it is only going to catch fire in local places. All that requires work.’

It requires investment too, and our delegates are sceptical the investment will come from central Government. Instead, they suggest they need to go out and find private investments for themselves using ‘innovative finance’ solutions – more of that later. There is no shortage of sources of finance, but that may require a more liberal approach to investments – and risk – than stands currently.

When it comes to central Government, our debate is at times heated – but more often than not it is sceptical and dismissive. Central Government is still struggling to define the role of local government when it comes to the climate change agenda. One of our chief executives is forthright with their thoughts: ‘We are not waiting to have our role defined by someone who has no clue about what our role should be!’

There is vigorous agreement across the whole virtual meeting, with much nodding, while another chief adds: ‘I have no time for central Government on this. I’ve never been prepared to wait for them.’

There is equal pessimism when it comes to COP26. One of our debaters gets straight to the point: ‘COP26 is an artificial construct that humans have put together – it is no more than that. It’s largely an irrelevance to the existential threat that the planet faces, in my humble opinion.’

It may focus the Government’s attention as the Prime Minister ‘will do some window dressing’ for Britain’s first global event since Brexit. Boris Johnson will want to look good on the international stage – which in turn will give councils the opportunity to push for some change.

‘We’re expecting another bidding process, pitting local authority against local authority to bid for some money for a shovel-ready project that will demonstrate something,’ someone suggests. But there is not much time to second guess what the projects may be, what to get shovel-ready.

Then one of our chiefs does a rapid U-turn mid-debate. Having started off as cynical about COP26, they start to see the opportunity for the event to galvanise attention towards climate change in a crowded policy agenda.

Focus also turns to the might of local government. ‘I genuinely find myself wondering if there is some kind of play which the local government family can make into COP26.’

Working together to go to the capital markets, asking the Government to match-fund three or four pilot projects, local government could give the Government the credibility it needs on the global stage and create projects that can then be scaled up across the country.

Our debaters have switched from cynicism to optimism, and even excitement, at the possibilities.

COP26 is not the only factor that has galvanised them. A year of COVID may have stalled some progress, but it has accelerated much of the climate crisis agenda.

‘Our recovery plans are all about equality, they are all about climate change and they are all about economic recovery. It’s joining up all of that thinking,’ one chief says.

The way the public has embraced open spaces – the ‘love affair with what is on our doorstep’ has given them a new impetus. And the energy and pace that the past year has seen – ‘doing things disruptively because of the pandemic’ – must not be lost either.

Local government must not return to the cautious approach of ‘hiding behind lawyers’ and Section 151 [finance] officers. The ‘only good thing’ to come out of the pandemic is the connection with place, the community passion and the new-found ability to ‘make stuff happen’. That must not be lost.

‘We will make inevitable progress,’ particularly on decarbonisation, we are told by one chief, but they add: ‘I keep coming back to the ecological systems. At the moment – in farming or in fishing or in a whole bunch of ways that humans use land – we are killing ourselves, and we’re killing our land. That is an area that is relatively untapped and explored by local government. That is the territory we should be moving into.’

The round table was in full flow as we concluded. Galvanised by the conversation, all participants pledged to continue to explore the issues raised. There was joint consensus that every opportunity must be taken to tackle the climate emergency – including through COP26 – from decarbonising the public sector estate to creation of jobs in the green economy, at pace and scale.

Local Partnerships and The MJ are holding a webinar on 10 June. For details go to https://local-partnerships.heysummit.com/

Round table participants

Jo Wall, strategic director of climate response, Local Partnerships

Sean Hanson, chief executive, Local Partnerships

Alex Bailey, chief executive, Adur and Worthing Councils

Tom Warburton, director of city futures, Newcastle City Council

Kathy O’Leary, chief executive, Stroud DC

Martin Reeves, chief executive, Coventry City Council

Paul Matthews, chief executive, Monmonthshire CC

Heather Jameson, editor, The MJ

‘The eyes of all future generations are upon you’...

...was environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s message at the UN Climate Summit 2019. Jo Wall asks whether this statement is beginning to prevail

The thing about tackling climate change is that, largely, we know what to do. The question is how we facilitate the bold and decisive actions that will deliver the necessary changes. What will count most is the pace and scale at which we act. The speed and extent of local authority climate emergency declarations were a clear indication that the sector would not await direction and was ready and willing to take action.

Local authorities are typically responsible directly for less than 2% of the carbon emissions in their areas, but indirectly for a much broader range which they are able to influence. The voice of local government enjoys high public trust ratings, and this has been further amplified by local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our round table discussion group was clear: it is essential that councils, as the shapers of place, understand their pivotal role in delivering the necessary changes. Demonstrating leadership by reducing their own emissions is only the starting point. Far more important is councils’ role as local change agent, acting as a market stimulant, project convenor, a provider of trusted information. No other agencies have the same understanding of, and reach into, local communities. By their own actions, councils can inspire and motivate positive behavioural change in their wider communities.

It was clear to me, both from the round table, and judging The MJ Award for ‘Leadership in responding to the climate emergency’ last year, that best-in-class authorities are demonstrating bold and decisive leadership. Public money alone will not avert this crisis. Success will only be delivered by working together to engage private sector investment in building energy efficiency, transport, renewable energy and a circular economy. The strength of those relationships and the force of the combined will to enact change at the necessary scale and pace were palpable at this round table.

The passion and the fervour of our colleagues demonstrate the collective desire to collaborate and share resources to bring about the most ambitious schemes across administrative boundaries, for the benefit of each and every community.

I am inspired with great optimism by our discussion. The importance is increasing of talking to communities, being the agent for change. We must address the issue of how societal change will truly be effected to achieve the decarbonisation of transport, building retrofit and investment in renewable energy.

I echo the words of Sir David Attenborough speaking at the BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) select committee hearing: ‘We cannot be radical enough’.

Jo Wall is strategic director climate response at Localpartnerships.org.uk


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