Facing the climate emergency challenge in local government

19th March 2024


It’s well recognised that the public sector has the opportunity to work towards a national net-zero landscape that goes well beyond improving on its own performance; it can also influence through procurement and can direct through policy.

Local authorities have an additional and unique opportunity to influence behaviours via their proximity to local communities and in their role as local leaders. Most local councils are very ambitious on climate change mitigation, in great part because they’re in touch with their voters and responding to their concerns.

However, when it comes to the explicit climate responsibilities of local authorities, it’s an uneven picture across the UK

In many respects, addressing climate change is a devolved matter, which has led to different parts of the UK having different responsibilities. In Scotland, local authorities are required to set a target date for reaching net zero for their own organisations and Ministers are legally required to support this. They also work towards reducing area wide emissions. Wales has the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which requires its local councils to place sustainable development at the heart of their work and is further reinforced by the Environment Act 2016 which sets out specific steps for progressing towards net zero. In contrast, local authorities in England and Northern Ireland have no duty to deliver net zero within their own operations and no explicit responsibility to encourage area-wide emissions reductions.

Nonetheless local authorities right across the UK have made declarations of climate emergency and almost all of these have developed a climate action plan in response to their declaration. Although not required to do so, English, and Northern Irish local authorities recognise that they have an implicit responsibility to work towards net zero in their own operations.

There is a case for a mandatory approach

Some see the different levels of ambition as a missed opportunity for driving change.

Within the Sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee pointed out that the UK’s progress in reducing emissions to date has largely been driven by the phase-out of coal for electricity generation, and that the next wave of progress in reducing emissions and reaching net zero will have a strong local dimension. It also notes however, that local authority powers and duties are not sufficient alone to deliver net zero; there are gaps in key powers, there are policy and funding barriers in place, and a general lack of capacity and skills caused by funding cuts.

The Independent Review of Net Zero carried out by Chris Skidmore MP in 2023 made a recommendation, for immediate implementation, for central government to introduce a statutory duty for local authorities to take account of the UK’s net zero targets, based on a clear framework of local roles and responsibilities. The government’s response was not to take that recommendation forward, believing that a general statutory requirement would not be needed given the high level of local commitment within the sector already.

This reliance on voluntary action over statutory duty was further reinforced at COP28, at which the UK government declined to sign up to the Coalition for High Ambition Multilevel Partnerships (CHAMP) for Climate Action. 65 other national governments, including many of our European neighbours, were signatories to this Coalition, pledging to enhance cooperation, where applicable and appropriate, with subnational governments in the planning, financing, implementation, and monitoring of climate strategies. Writing in Local Government First Councillor Marianne Overton MBE, who attended COP28 as part of the Local Government Association delegation regrets that despite their best efforts, the UK has yet to sign.

A double-edged sword? The pros and cons of a statutory duty

Would it be a blessing or a headache for local authorities in England and Northern Ireland to acquire a statutory duty to consider climate change? Certainly, a statutory duty is a service or action that authorities are compelled to carry out by law, whatever the associated costs may be. Local authority funding is already under immense pressure from the duties they already have, for instance to prevent homelessness and to provide adult and children’s social care. Clearly not all local authorities would welcome additional duties and it’s likely that none would were no additional funding also made available.

On the other hand, making net zero targets optional means that every local authority must forge its own path, and magic up the budgets to achieve the things it wants to do. Inevitably this results in an uneven pattern of funding and progress, and without doubt considerable duplication of efforts.

In 2022 Suffolk County Council, in collaboration with all the second-tier authorities within the county, put together an Environment Portfolio Holders’ Policy Asks document. It calls for the government to work closely with Suffolk on a low carbon transport network; to provide the framework for targeting appropriate levels of investment into electricity generation and distribution to enable the transition to a low carbon county; to deliver a robust national policy mechanism to incentivise whole house energy retrofit and low carbon heating solutions at scale; to put in place a sustainable funding policy that includes longer term, locally devolved multi-year settlements to preplace fragmented, short term competitive bid-based funds; to coordinate and fund a mass public engagement campaign to be delivered in partnership with local leaders to raise awareness on the climate and biodiversity emergency and encourage lasting behaviour change; and to enable flexibility in the business rates system to incentivise a positive green transition. David Walton MEIMA CEnv, Climate Emergency Programme Manager at Suffolk County Council concludes that a sustainable, long-term funding environment in particular would enable local authorities to collaborate more effectively to improve project delivery efficiency, rather than expending resource developing bids in competition with neighbours. The Blueprint Coalition Manifesto Asks includes similar calls: for placed-based approaches, genuine central and local government partnerships, and reforms to the structure of funding schemes.

IEMA’s approach

IEMA consistently campaigns for consistency of policy from central government which would enable local councils to plan and build up project pipelines, with adequate supply chains staffed by people with the right skills to do the job. In this election year it will be interesting to see the role that the environment has in the campaign manifestos put forward by the contenders, and IEMA is hopeful that all groups will take note of its policy asks document, published just prior to the party conferences in 2023.

IEMA’s webinar and papers are put together by topic specialists within its membership, and many of them are of use to local authority teams. ‘Climate’ and ‘environment’ are huge cross-cutting topics for local authorities, and it isn’t a stretch to say that working on associated projects is an enormous task. In some respects, we’re almost asking climate officers to reform the entire governance of their authorities. Recognising these challenges, which include changing mindsets and setting groundbreaking policies, IEMA’s papers aim to support decision makers to confidently make the right choices. Recent papers include: Guidance on the carbon impact of local plans, Outlook journal: Considering the Water Environment in Impact Assessment and Local nature recovery strategies - A pathway to prosperity. Alongside its policy advocacy IEMA continues to offer events and guidance papers put together by topic specialists that will help to support and develop local council climate and sustainability officers.

Subscribe

Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.


Transform articles

EU and UK citizens fear net-zero delivery deficit

Support for net zero remains high across the UK and the EU, but the majority of citizens don't believe that major emitters and governments will reach their climate targets in time.

16th May 2024

Read more

There is strong support for renewable energy as a source of economic growth among UK voters, particularly among those intending to switch their support for a political party.

16th May 2024

Read more

Taxing the extraction of fossil fuels in the world’s most advanced economies could raise $720bn (£575bn) by 2030 to support vulnerable countries facing climate damages, analysis has found.

2nd May 2024

Read more

The largest-ever research initiative of its kind has been launched this week to establish a benchmark for the private sector’s contribution to the UK’s 2050 net-zero target.

2nd May 2024

Read more

The Scottish government has today conceded that its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 is now “out of reach” following analysis by the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

18th April 2024

Read more

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Five of the latest books on the environment and sustainability

3rd April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close