James Dyson and Nuala Burnett

6 May 2021

UK governance approaches are rooted in centralised production and dissemination of major policies. However, 60% of decarbonisation in the CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget ‘balanced pathway’ relies on societal changes. This highlights the importance of a pathway to net zero that is flexible to social and geographical variations and puts community consent, engagement, and understanding at its core.

In the UK, local authorities are under-resourced. Since 2010, funding has been reduced by 7% in Scotland, 8% in Wales and 21% in England. Despite these cuts, following widespread climate emergency declarations, local governments have committed to ambitious net zero targets and 62% have developed new or refreshed climate action plans. These actions are invaluable first steps for local authorities to engage with climate action, forming a bridge between policies and people.

The value of local authority-led climate action

There is a natural role for local authorities in enabling climate action with active involvement from residents. Local authorities have engaged with residents to inform climate action plans through online consultations and climate change citizens assemblies or juries. At least 18 have carried out assemblies and juries, and many more have conducted online public consultations. Examples of participatory democracy, such as the Oxford Climate Assembly and regional collaboration on climate change, such as Climate Emergency Devon, represent a new role for authorities to engage residents. As achieving net zero in the UK requires increasing societal change, practices which foster engagement will become increasingly valuable.

Involving local authorities allows consideration of local particularities, adding a dimension of justice unique to local government. For example, urban authorities with high levels of air pollution will have cleaner air as a co-benefit of climate action. Tower Hamlets Council includes a substantial explanation of the link between climate action and improved air quality in its climate action plan.

On a macro scale, there are also significant regional disparities, for example decarbonisation in rural and urban areas (highlighted by UK100’s Countryside Climate Network). Rural areas benefit geographically from the ability to focus on carbon sequestration, with projects such as the Yorkshire Peat Partnership highlighting how rural communities are able to out-perform urban areas.

Alongside their capacity to drive local involvement and feed into a wider strategy of decarbonisation, local authorities will contribute significantly to the UK’s achievement of net-zero. BEIS projects that the UK is not likely to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, despite these targets having been set en route to the less challenging 80% baseline reduction by 2050 (as opposed to 100% net zero, introduced in 2019 and recently set in law).

Given the complexity of meeting these goals, and place-based nature of successful climate action, local authorities form a key piece of the national strategic approach. If local authorities with authority-wide net-zero targets are successful, based on preliminary analysis of the PCAN dataset and BEIS data, this could potentially eliminate 21% of total emissions produced by the UK (based on data from 2018, the latest date for which local authority carbon dioxide emissions estimates are available).

Challenges in local climate action

The current state of local climate action, especially in England, is fragmented and inconsistent. The devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have provided direction on their local authorities’ role in the road to net zero. Without the same level of direction for authorities in England, there is significant variation between English authorities on their level of readiness to address net-zero.

This is not isolated to local climate action. A recent Institute for Government report on the government’s response to the pandemic finds the relationship between central and local government must be addressed urgently. Among local authorities which claim to be proactive on climate change, some major decisions remain inconsistent with targets. For example, Cumbria Council’s support for a new coal mine, airport expansion plans approved by City Councils of Leeds  (subsequently put on pause by the government) and Manchester, and Chelsea and Kensington’s removal of a major bike lane.

Inconsistent interest or capability to tackle climate change among UK’s local authorities has serious consequences for their residents. A disproportionate number of new homes built in disadvantaged areas will also be in high flood-risk zones in the future, demonstrating the importance of consistent integration of climate policy into planning and across all areas of UK local authority operationsNottingham's pilot of net-zero retrofits on housing using the Energiesprong approach, which we feature in the PCAN Trends in Local Climate Action in the UK report, is an example of this being done well by Nottingham City Council planning department working with a housing association and an innovative building company.

There is a risk of reinforcing social, economic, and environmental inequality between authorities set on ambitious climate action and those that continue with “business as usual”, or are not able to dedicate resources to climate action. This risks creating a future where some councils are left behind in mitigation, adaptation and associated social and economic benefits and threats.

Moving forward

UK local authorities are ambitious and have been proactive in their approach to tackling climate change, and they have great potential to facilitate the UK’s decarbonisation. Furthermore, with in-depth knowledge of their local areas and the ability to engage with residents on a more personal basis, local authorities are well-placed to facilitate local climate action.

To move action forward, local climate action should be better integrated into UK policy. National government should support this integration by facilitating knowledge sharing and joined-up climate action plans, reinforcing the capacity of, and need for, local authorities to spearhead an efficient and inclusive transition to net zero.

Westminster should produce a national framework for local climate action in England, with connections to policy in the devolved governments where possible and appropriate. The framework would contain strategic regional partnerships responsible for making connections between individual climate action plans, and climate-relevant transboundary sectors, such as transport and resource management. This was a recommendation in the Climate Change Committee’s report on Local Authorities and the Sixth Carbon Budget, and it was also a key ask of national government in PCAN’s report and Green Alliance’s report on The Local Climate Challenge.

Climate action plans are a crucial first step to delivering deliberated and transparent decarbonisation. The government should allocate resources to a challenge fund for under-resourced and ambitious local authorities to gain the necessary resources to produce their own plan. This will contribute to levelling-up climate action across the UK, avoiding the undesirable situation where local resilience to climate change and associated social, technical and economic shifts is defined by access to the resource and the political will to tackle the issue.

Image: Energiesprong retrofit pilot in Nottingham (credit:Tracey Whitefoot)

PCAN researchers Dr Candice Howarth, Prof Sam Fankhauser and Dr Matt Lane with Prof Rebecca Willis of Lancaster University discussed how local authorities can enact policies to ensure climate emergency declarations bring about real change in a roundtable as part of the LSE Festival 2021. Read the report