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Climate change is an issue local government can no longer ignore - because without action, the UK landscape could c...
Climate change is an issue local government can no longer ignore - because without action, the UK landscape could change beyond recognition. Jennifer Sprinks reports

Tackling climate change relies heavily on global efforts. So councils could be forgiven for not bothering in the face of unstoppable industrial expansion by countries such as China, and the US's continuing love affair with trucks that burn more fuel than a typical terrace.

However, many councils are realising that unless they help the UK clean up its act, future generations could find themselves living in a very different country to the one we know - one of rising seas levels, warmer temperatures, summer droughts and winter floods. Not to mention a country in a very different economic situation - and not for the better.

The recent Stern Review on climate change spelt out that the question is no longer about whether we can afford to act but whether we can afford not to.

The study, based on formal economic models, says a 'do nothing' approach could be equivalent to - at a minimum - losing the equivalent of 5% of gross domestic product per year, every year. When you consider the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be limited to about 1% of GDP per year, even the most hardened anti-environmentalists would struggle to raise objections.

Merton LBC principal environment officer, Adrian Hewitt, explains: 'If we do nothing, then things that are outlined by Stern will come about. The economic breakdown that we will suffer will be picked up by local authorities. Things like fuel poverty and employment collapsing in local areas will create a degree of chaos for councils. It will reduce the amount of revenue coming into the area and eventually could become unsustainable.'

Sceptics may wonder what difference local action can make. However, if authorities are willing, they may find they can make a significant impact on not only how much carbon they themselves emit but also how much is produced by citizens. Local Government Association environment board chair Paul Bettison (Con) says: 'We have to get the message across [about why we should tackle climate change] in as many different ways as possible by every different medium of communication at our command. One very powerful way to lead is by example. Climate change is a big issue for all human kind and if we do not take the lead with our own communities then we are pretty poor leaders.'

According to think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), we have only a decade left to reverse the growth of greenhouse gases and avoid irreversible climate change. The Stern Review proposes a long-term goal of stabilising greenhouse gases at 450-550 parts per million of carbon dioxide, but the IPPR says this range has a medium-to-high risk of exceeding a 2--C rise in temperature.

The likely impact of a rise of 2-3--C globally includes an increase in the number of people without enough water to drink to two billion; agricultural losses extending to the world's largest exporters of food; the loss of the world's most biodiverse ecosystems, including most of the coral reefs; the transformation of the planet's soils and forests into a net source of carbon, causing an additional 2--C-3--C rise in temperature; and an increase in the likelihood of other abrupt changes in climate, such as a rise in sea levels by 12 metres.

'It would be kind of ironic that because of rising sea levels, Bracknell in a few hundred years from now could be on the coast with the sea encroaching,' explains Cllr Bettison. 'If we are not careful we will be having Christmas dinner on Brighton beach. If we need proof of climate change, then I would say we are already experiencing the effects now - the Saturday people spent on Brighton beach in mid October is proof of that.'

He continues: 'Some may find they do not have to travel to exotic locations for a sunny holiday but by the same token our green fields will be gone because there will be burnt areas of brown land, an increase in water levels because of melting glaciers and a nightmare for our homes built on floodplains. Flooding will not only be for those by the beach. It could happen 70 miles inland on floodplains.'

When faced with such statistics, it is understandable that councils become like rabbits in headlights, aware of the situation but so overwhelmed that they are transfixed in inaction. According to the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), the first step is for an authority to investigate how it can integrate its climate change policies into everything it does to create 'virtuous circles'.

The logic goes that if they put in the right policies and take the lead - which does not necessarily mean waiting for new powers to do so from central government - positive results will follow. Alice Owen, chair of the SDC's local and regional steering group, explains: 'These benefits include improved health through reduced pollution; stronger local economies, through energy efficiencies and investments in local carbon technologies; and social rewards, such as improved housing stock leading to reductions in fuel poverty.'

Woking BC is widely recognised as the leading council on tackling the local impact on climate change. It was one of the first to adopt a climate change strategy, which was on a big enough scale to meet national environmental pollution targets of 60% reductions of CO-- equivalent emissions by 2050 and 80% by 2100. The strategy aims to take a carbon neutral approach to the future of services and activities within the borough.

'Thinking globally, acting locally' is Woking's motto, so for each service it has developed a series of climate change actions that cover the whole spectrum of the borough's energy uses: power, heat, water, waste disposal and transport for local authority, home and business users. As well as minimising impacts, however, it has also looked practically at what is needed to adapt to climate change.

Woking BC climate change officer, Lara Curran, attributes the council's success to the fact that it has embedded climate change in both its political and corporate aspirations. 'First, councils need to get their own estate in order with energy efficiency so that they can justifiably look at how the same principles can be applied to households,' she says.

Woking is one of the Improvement & Development Agency's seven beacon scheme councils for climate change and sustainable energy. In the next few months the councils will be mentoring a number of others and from this the department will launch a national programme in May.

As well as guidance, the Department for Communities & Local Government believes the local government white paper will give councils the space they need to get partners and residents better involved. In theory the paper will certainly help break down barriers to partnership working to tackle climate change through, for example, the duty on local partners to co-operate.

But Merton's Mr Hewitt says it will be funding which authorities will need more than ever in years to come, to pay for investments that will in the long run save taxpayers' cash. Certainly the massive issue of how the country's existing housing stock can be made more energy efficient in the step-change way that is needed, is not something that will come cheaply.

But Mr Hewitt adds that without government commitment, councils can also kiss goodbye to more technological initiatives, such as greater energy from waste: 'Councils have the responsibility for [waste] disposal but they are like teenagers loitering on the dancefloor, nudging one another into being the first to ask a girl to dance. Unless government can redirect landfill tax and underwrite the investment, then local authorities will not be prepared to stump up and procure energy from waste technologies because of the risk involved.'

On the other hand, both the DCLG and Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs may well ask why Woking is so much further ahead than many others. A wider dialogue is needed about the issues between central and local government, but councils need to show more appetite for sharing best practice.

Evidence of the latter is the Nottingham Declaration on Climate Change, which has at least 160 local authorities signed up. Members pledge to tackle climate change in their area and work with others to reduce emissions country-wide.

'Councils can take the knowledge they have from the communities they serve and blend it what they are asking people to do to mitigate climate change, making it part of their natural way of thinking,' says Nottingham City Council's deputy leader Michael Edwards (Lab).

The Local Government Association is also setting up a commission on climate change, which it hopes will come up with at least 10 points of guidance for councils to follow. But the association will have to convince them about the urgency of doing something now, regardless of whether climate change seems but a distant concern to growing economies such as China and India.

Meanwhile, in the UK at least, climate change continues to grow as a political issue. And next year if Gordon Brown, as the next prime minister, takes the Stern Review to heart, the economics of climate change may be where he decides to make a bold policy change.

But, until then, local government would be well to follow Cllr Bettison's advice: 'Most things seem like huge undertakings - but even the biggest ones are a series of small steps.'

Comment - Local leadership will help cut carbon emissions

Cutting carbon emissions, the main cause of climate change, is fast becoming a key priority for all organisations, including councils. With high energy prices, it is small wonder that the issue of energy efficiency is moving up the public sector's agenda. Increasingly, councils need to address how to integrate good carbon management into their energy and sustainability policies, to improve energy efficiency and cut bills.

Councils have a key role to play in tackling climate change, owing to the volume of emissions they produce and their role as a lead procurer - so it is vital they lead by example. The good news is that the low-carbon option is also the low-cost option - so individual councils can do their bit while improving their organisation's efficiency.

The Carbon Trust currently works with a fifth of local authorities to help them drive down carbon emissions and energy use. As a private company set up by government to accelerate the transition to a low carbon economy, we have developed a bespoke Local Authority Carbon Management Programme, designed to help councils across the UK integrate good carbon management throughout their organisation. The scheme is designed to offer practical support in implementing core energy-saving recommendations, recognising that one of the main barriers to carbon reduction can be lack of time or staff resource. The Carbon Trust programme is working with 35 councils to help address their carbon management needs. To date the scheme has helped 63 councils identify total savings of£20.5m and 300,000 tonnes of CO2.

Aberdeen City Council, one of the first authorities to work with us, originally set out to cut its carbon emissions by 15% by 2015. Last month, it announced it had already cut them by 31%, through measures such as switching all street lighting to renewable source electricity and installing better insulation.

The low carbon option is not just about reducing energy use. Earlier this year, environment secretary David Miliband announced a£10m boost at the launch of our Partnerships for Renewables initiative. The initiative has been created to facilitate partnerships between private sector organisations to plan, develop, construct and operate wind and other renewable energy projects on public sector land. Within the next five years, we aim to build enough renewable projects to provide power equivalent to the needs of a quarter of a million homes.

It's keythat local authorities get on board now and play their part in accelerating the UK's move to a low carbon economy. It makes good sense to adopt a low carbon strategy, both for councils' efficiency and for our common future.

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