Rosanna Harvey-Crawford

16 June 2021

All over the UK, cities and regions are grappling with how to translate their net-zero commitments into action. In Edinburgh, an innovative "Climate Compact" was launched at the end of 2020 with intention of addressing this challenge. The Compact is a shared endeavour between City of Edinburgh Council and the Edinburgh Climate Commission, and was designed by a team of ECCi and council employees and commissioners, led by commissioner Clare Foster.

The Climate Compact is a commitment by leading businesses and employers in Edinburgh to make the necessary changes within their organisation and sector to support the radical reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the city. It brings together key stakeholders in Edinburgh to identify common challenges and explore opportunities for shared investment in large scale projects, such as city district heating.  In short, the Compact is there to enable the "action" in climate action. However, during the time the Compact was established, familiar questions resurfaced: how to resource such an initiative, and who should resource it?

Drawing up a Climate Compact

In May 2019, the Scottish Government set a legally binding target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. In the same month, City of Edinburgh Council set its own target to become net-zero by 2030. Since then, the Edinburgh Commission has been established as a "critical friend" to help the city realise its net-zero ambitions. The Climate Compact was launched in December 2020 and received a warm media reception, with coverage ranging from The Scotman, Herald, Business Insider and The Times. As the first partnership of its kind in Scotland, it generated a lot of interest not only in its potential to support Edinburgh’s net-zero efforts, but for replication in other Scottish cities. 

An effective city response to the challenge of meeting net-zero will require organisations to work together in ways they haven’t before. Previously, large scale, low carbon infrastructure projects have been challenging to undertake as they require collaboration across different sectors and between different city stakeholders. The Compact brings together these diverse stakeholders: so far, the University of Edinburgh, NatWest, Scottish Power, NHS Lothian, Shepherd and Wedderburn, Robertson Group, SP Energy Networks, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Airport, Edinburgh Fringe Festival,  Changeworks and City of Edinburgh Council.

These first signatories of the Compact were chosen by the Commission for their influence and impact. They are large city employers with a high annual turnover and are some of the biggest emitters in the city, or those organisations that have most influence over area-based emissions from people and businesses in Edinburgh. One important aspect of the Compact is the requirement for organisations to look at their operations – where can they influence climate action, from their suppliers to their customers, as well as taking internal steps to become more sustainable.

A significant challenge for the team drawing up the Compact was maintaining ambition and accountability without alienating the signatories. This required meeting organisations in the middle on the terms of the Compact. One of the Compact designers spoke of the difficulty in achieving this balance - the need to establish targets that work for both the city and the signatories, without watering down climate ambitions. The first signatories were presented with the draft Compact terms, and were able to contribute feedback. It was a collaborative process that has ultimately built a successful partnership, with the signatories eager to start work.

Making ambition a reality

In addition to the Compact’s requirements to address sustainability in organisations’ operations, the Compact has another significant aim. The past couple of years have seen countries, cities and regions declare climate emergencies and net-zero targets. Numerous reports have been written on the steps that need to be taken in order to make these ambitions a reality, including PCAN's A Net-Zero Carbon Roadmap for Edinburgh. However, translating this ambition into practice remains a key challenge.

The Compact signifies an effort to try and bridge this gap between advisory reports and meaningful action. Bringing together key stakeholders in Edinburgh to discuss what needs to be done to reach net-zero and how they can work together to implement ambitious programmes of work will hopefully kick-start climate action in the city. A particular focus will be how to unlock private finance for investment in infrastructure projects, such as electric vehicle charging networks and district heating installation. Although the first signatories are some of the largest organisations in Edinburgh, the Compact is not intended to be an exclusive club. All organisations in the city have been invited to apply to become a Compact signatory, ensuring that different sectors and diverse organisations are represented.

Familiar challenges

While the Compact is an important step in facilitating climate action in Edinburgh, it has also served to highlight a persistent problem. Local authorities have set ambitious climate targets, however, the reality is that securing funding for climate initiatives remains a major hurdle to climate action. Important and innovative enterprises like Climate Commissions and Climate Compacts require coordination and support, most of which is currently provided through voluntary time and goodwill. As the Green Alliance highlighted in December 2020, local authorities are not receiving sufficient funds and support to lower their emissions, and this follows a decade of severe budget cuts to Councils. PCAN's report, Trends in Local Climate Action in the UK, published in March 2021, similarly described how councils’ delivery capacity on climate action has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, while also being hindered by inconsistent support from national government..

The Climate Change Committee, in their Local Authorities and the Sixth Carbon Budget report, stressed the importance of partnerships within their national coordination framework for net-zero. It states that, in order to affect emissions beyond their direct control, local authorities should "work in partnership to reduce area wide emissions". The report also highlights the need to increase funds and capacity in local authorities.

While the Compact addresses the need for city partnerships and presents an opportunity to catalyse shared investment, it is undeniable that these efforts will be challenging to sustain without national government support. In order to resource these important initiatives, local authorities need to be provided with the funding and capacity they currently lack. Without the efforts of local authorities, the national target for net-zero will be considerably harder to reach. It is important to not let the opportunity for coordinated and meaningful action to pass by.

Rosanna Harvey-Crawford is a member of PCAN's Edinburgh team and works at the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute as Researcher and Project Coordinator 

Photo by Madeleine Kohler on Unsplash