Jamie Brogan

14 February 2022

Local authorities have a key part to play in piecing together the jigsaw of place-based emissions reductions we need to deliver a net zero UK. Many have shown leadership in declaring a climate emergency, by setting area-wide targets, and in taking responsibility for accelerating the climate transition within their areas. I believe local authorities are the organisations that can do the most at the local level to help drive down emissions from UK places.

Those local authorities setting area-wide targets have accepted a huge challenge. It is great to see more and more UK organisations taking responsibility for reducing their own emissions, and even better to see commitments extending up and down supply chains and into customer influence. In setting area-wide targets, local authorities are taking responsibility for their part in an even bigger challenge: to lead, enable or support the changes in local systems, infrastructure, choices and behaviours that are needed to deliver net zero places across the UK.

At the University of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute are helping local authorities to define and deliver their role in driving down area-wide emissions. Two of our recent projects working with local authority networks have both shown the extent of their potential influence on area-wide emissions, and highlighted the challenges they face in managing and delivering effective area-wide strategies. These projects are informing organisations who support local authorities, and helping authorities themselves to understand the changes they need to make, where their actions can be most effective, and how they might embed climate impact into city decision making.

Our work with UK100 has shown that local authorities can have considerable influence on area-wide emissions.  Our research report shows that councils’ own operational footprints were a higher proportion of area-wide emissions than previously thought; a range of 4-9%, compared with previous estimates of 2-5%. This shows the importance of local authorities understanding and driving down their own organisational emissions, and demonstrating that same commitment to other local organisations.

It also emphasises the extent to which local authority decisions and powers can influence the wider set of emissions from across a local authority area. Government analysis in the UK Net Zero Strategy suggests local authorities’ scope of influence can extend to over three quarters of area-based emissions sources, highlighting the importance of understanding that wider impact and embedding climate impact into all city decisions and development.  

Our work with the Scottish Cities Alliance, and the leaders of Scotland’s seven city authorities and the national organisations who support them, supports local authorities to embed climate impact deeply into city decision making. The programme looks at capability and capacity. It seeks to build capability by using data to work out emissions reduction scenarios and their costs for city projects at the design and development stage. The work also clearly highlights that local authorities need to build significantly more capacity to effectively resource the delivery of their climate ambitions.

In both of these, responsibility lies not only with local authorities themselves, but also with their private, public and government partners who can deliver economies of scale and consistency of approach through a combination of local, sectoral and national approaches to support the delivery of national climate targets.

Local authorities are often criticised, because they cannot always get everything right. However, in setting targets to reduce area-wide emissions, many are leading climate action at a local level. These authorities are taking on a complex problem, with the intent to use all of their influence and to play the biggest part they can in response to the global climate crisis. They cannot and should not have to deliver these targets and ambitions alone. All of us – businesses, individuals, and communities, and independent bodies like local climate commissions who can help to catalyse and convene – need to help them do the best job they can in creating healthy, thriving places that do not continue to contribute to damaging climate change.

Jamie Brogan is a co-investigator for the Place-based Climate Action Network and Head of Climate Partnerships at Edinburgh Climate Change Institute

Picture: Nottingham City Council / Ashden