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A climate emergency declared. What councils should do next

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The early part of 2019 has seen unprecedented demands for increased government action on climate change. Protests by Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes have got people thinking about climate change and its implications. More than 100 councils have now declared a climate emergency.

However, much of the discussion is about giving things up. We have a different view. By engaging people and connecting climate policy to the needs of everyone, councils can demonstrate that the co-benefits of climate action improve lives, not diminish them. Benefits like local jobs, money staying in local economies, clean air, green spaces, and warm homes.

It is however important to acknowledge that councils cannot do this on their own. National government needs to regulate and fund this transition.

That being said, councils are well placed to drive and influence action through the services they deliver, their regulatory and strategic functions and their roles as community leaders, major employers, large-scale procurers and social landlords.

Councils should ensure they are using all their powers to minimise carbon emissions. This needs to take place across all departments. Every decision made by the council should involve asking: ‘Will this help or hinder in delivering our carbon reduction targets?’

A good starting place is procurement. Councils should require suppliers to adopt sustainable practices, such as committing to being zero carbon within a set time period. Social value clauses can also be included that require contractors to offer skills and associated apprenticeships relating to the low carbon economy, creating local jobs and training.

Leadership is crucial. For example, councils should ensure all the buildings they own and occupy are minimising energy use and are powered by renewable energy. This is leading from the front; ‘walking the talk’ and showing residents and businesses the way. Cambridgeshire CC has used the re:fit programme to provide loans to pay for energy saving measures in schools, helping to save thousands of pounds each year. Kent CC has slashed its carbon emissions and energy bill by replacing its streetlights with LEDs.

Changing how we travel is essential. Local authorities should ensure their transport strategies promote and enable walking, cycling and public transport, whilst also facilitating the uptake of electric vehicles. In this way we start to clean up the air in our towns and cities, improve residents’ health and reduce the associated costs and stresses on local services, leaving more money for councils to spend.

Waltham Forest LBC has allocated section 106 health funding to increase walking and cycling as part of its enjoy Waltham Forest project. Nottingham City Council is funding sustainable transport initiatives including electric trams and buses through its workplace parking levy. The London plan stipulates that developments must ensure that 20% of parking spaces provide an electric charging point to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles.

Putting development of the low carbon economy at the heart of a council’s local plan can generate substantial opportunities for local people. Liverpool City Region’s low carbon economy contributes over £2bn to the city region’s economy. Growth is being further stimulated through the development of energy and heat networks and a modal shift in transport. The gross value added of this sector is expected to rise by 34% by 2030.

Councils can also support the burgeoning low carbon economy, paying particular attention to supporting those whose jobs in carbon intensive sectors may be at risk. Councils in Norfolk and Suffolk have funded a new training centre on an offshore wind farm in Great Yarmouth, one of the most deprived districts in the country.

Local authorities are directly accountable to their residents for their decisions and by demonstrating that action on climate change improves the lives of citizens, they take people with them. This gives councils the public support they need to act quickly and help stop the climate emergency.

Let’s change the discourse: Climate action isn’t about giving things up; it’s about getting things back.

Simon Brammer, head of cities, Ashden

  • · Ashden has just published a Climate Action Co-benefits Toolkit aimed at local authorities that contains many more examples, links to local resources and data and a methodology to engage citizens, businesses and wider civil society.

The Climate Action Co-benefits Toolkit is available to download here.

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