It is always difficult to get people to worry about climate change. In times of austerity it is even harder.
A recent poll by the Department of Energy and Climate Change showed that only 2% of people rate climate change as the biggest challenge facing the UK at the moment. Just 10% place it in the top three concerns.
Apathy on this scale cannot be ignored. Many local authorities have apparently taken note and followed their electorates in turning their attention away from climate change. The Green Alliance showed recently that two thirds of local authorities are either stopping, deprioritising or narrowing their work on climate change.
This should not come as a surprise. They have no statutory duties to reduce carbon emissions, are facing deep funding cuts, and are witnessing a central Government itself so torn on the issue that it is unable to come to a decision about onshore wind power subsidies. But, despite mixed messages from Whitehall, local government has a key role to play in addressing climate change and creating low carbon jobs.
How can local government continue to do this in the face of public apathy? Part of the answer lies in resurrecting the idea that going green is not just a cost - which, in some cases, it is - but a business opportunity as well. This idea almost became consensus before the recession hit, with politicians from the left and right (notably David Cameron - the leader of the self-styled Greenest Government Ever) coming forward to pronounce on the benefits for the UK of securing part of the global growth in low carbon industries.
Yet more recent government rhetoric has been less encouraging. At the 2011 Conservative Conference, George Osborne argued that “we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”. Policy from the Treasury has also been far from helpful. For example, the Green Investment Bank has no borrowing powers, and there is no revenue recycling element to the Carbon Reduction Commitment. This is a shame, as many important people remain persuaded; the CBI, to its credit, is still making the case for investment in the low carbon economy.
Where does this leave local government? It must make the benefits of tackling climate change clear to residents. Where jobs and other public goods are linked to low carbon measures, it is the former that must be emphasised. Local government has a huge role to play over the coming few years to promote the Government’s flagship energy efficiency scheme, the Green Deal.
Doing so will spur local jobs, as well as reducing energy bills. The LGA have also pointed out that local authorities could even turn these schemes into a revenue stream, making it still more attractive for all concerned.
Faced with major cuts, a difficult economy and mixed messages from Whitehall, local government could be excused for not focusing on the low carbon economy. But councils plays a key role in addressing the challenge of climate change and taking a long-term view on jobs in their local area. Low carbon has always been an important driver of jobs growth. In times of austerity it is even more so.
Nye Cominetti is a research assistant at The Work Foundation www.theworkfoundation.com