Candice Howarth and Jamie Brogan 

3 February 2023

In 2022, PCAN funded a project to evaluate the impact of the Belfast, Edinburgh and Leeds Commissions, to help understand the role they are playing in the climate activities of their respective cities, and the extent to which they provide a replicable model for place-based climate governance. A report outlining the findings from this evaluation has now been published; we summarise these findings and reflect on what we have learned on local climate governance and what more needs to be done.

Why did we set up Climate Commissions?

Climate Commissions were designed to fill a gap in local climate governance. They were set up to explore whether introducing an independent form of local governance could help accelerate local climate action, and to stimulate, test and learn from innovative place-based approaches. Edinburgh and Belfast were established in late 2019, with Leeds having been established two years earlier.

What is the role of the PCAN Commissions?

The three core PCAN Climate Commissions are widely valued and respected independent organisations in the local climate policy landscape and have all contributed to the development of local climate policy. Each of the city councils in Belfast, Edinburgh and Leeds have declared a climate emergency, there are more organisations that have publicly committed to working towards Net Zero carbon emissions and there are many more sources of advice and support available on a range of subjects on place-based climate action. The Climate Commissions fill a niche that was missing in each of the three cities. The evaluation found that no other organisations fulfilled the convening and independent evidence-based advisory functions that the Commissions undertake.

They adopt a number of roles, ranging from policy innovation, knowledge brokering, evidence provision on climate change, awareness raising, engagement, facilitation, and challenge. However, the evaluation found that the Commissions have two functions primarily: that of a convenor bringing disparate organisations and individuals to work together to take action on addressing climate change in their cities, and that of an independent, evidence-based advisor role, providing impartial, robust evidence and advice to influence policy and delivery of climate action. 

What impact are the PCAN Core Commissions having?

The Commissions have had, and continue to have an important impact locally (see graphics below, which you can also download). From informing the development of city councils’ climate plans (e.g. through the Net Zero Carbon Roadmaps), providing a voice for local businesses and employers (e.g. through the Edinburgh Climate Compact), engaging with citizens (e.g. via the Leeds Climate Change Citizen’s Assembly) and youth (e.g. Belfast Climate Youth Survey and Summit), and informing practice on finance and adaptation (eg by providing case studies in adaptation finance to support the Climate Change Committee's newly published report, Investment for a well-adapted UK). The work of the PCAN Climate Commissions has demonstrated that they play a useful role in facilitating concrete climate actions, but that it can take time for this to translate into actual project delivery.

How could the Commissions evolve?

Re-balancing mitigation and adaptation: the focus of all three Climate Commissions has predominantly been on climate mitigation and much less so on adaptation. More could be done to re-balance this, ensure a better integration of mitigation and adaptation and seek to further inform the local policy priorities for climate action.

Unanticipated contextual factors: the COVID-19 pandemic led to a lack of face-to-face Commission meetings, which was felt to have a detrimental impact on the operation of the Commissions and relationship-building between Commissioners. Similarly, the lack of a Northern Ireland Government for much of the time the Belfast Climate Commission has been in existence was identified as a specific challenge and seen as a contributing factor to there being no national climate legislation in place until 2022 to help shape the priorities of the Commission.

Resourcing and funding: consideration needs to be given as to how the Climate Commissions can secure sustainable and appropriate levels of funding to enable them to continue to deliver both the functions identified in the research and the translation of work into tangible climate outcomes. 

Managing expectations: some of the Commissions expressed a perceived lack of funding and resourcing of the Commissions which limited the operation and ability of the Commissions to deliver all the priorities they identified to deliver, such as conducting additional research. And, while each of the Commissions had clear Terms of Reference, Commissioners and individuals in supporting roles from both Edinburgh and Leeds Climate Commissions were not clear on their Commission's roles and purpose. This meant that Commissioners had differing expectations of what they could do and the time and resources they were able to commit.

What does this mean for place-based climate governance?

From both establishing and managing the Commissions, and through this independent assessment, we have learned the following:

  • A place-based approach is an essential component of climate action, with so many measures and the engagement needed to support them having to be designed and delivered at the local level to be most effective.
  • Commissions can make a valuable contribution in bringing climate action up the local political, social and organisational agendas, and in building partnerships and securing commitments. However, it is difficult to measure and attribute their impact directly to climate projects and emissions reduction.
  • What independent Commissions have been most effective at doing is convening different and divergent city stakeholders to start collaborating on key challenges.
  • Commissions have been a forum for stimulating collaboration, problem sharing and knowledge exchange, and for helping to establish partnerships or governance mechanisms that can stimulate and support place-based approaches to tackling different components of climate action.
  • The governance gap still exists, and it has proven difficult for volunteer Commissions to fill that as the sheer complexity of the challenge requires a complex and interconnected programme of work that a volunteer Commission can often only initiate.
  • It seems likely Commissions will still have a role until more formal and better resourced mechanisms for delivering place-based climate action, with appropriate governance structures, are established at the optimum place-based level, whether local or regional.


Candice Howarth is Co-Director of the Place-based Climate Action Network and leads PCAN's adaptation platform. Jamie Brogan is a Co-Investigator for PCAN and Chair of the Edinburgh Climate Commission