Go back to the drawing board when planning for net zero

31st May 2023

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Around a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions arise from sectors that are directly shaped or influenced by local authorities.

Despite there being no statutory duty for local authorities to take account of the UK’s net-zero targets (a recommendation of the Skidmore Review that is not being taken forward by government), most have voluntarily made declarations of climate emergency and have set their own ambitious decarbonisation targets for 2030 or 2035.

Decarbonisation projects mostly involve changes to infrastructure that is already built and to sectors that already exist. Local authorities have an abundance of advice on this, centred around ways of using energy more efficiently, switching to electrification and promoting community renewable energy schemes.

Council sustainability teams are increasingly influential, and work hard to reduce local emissions against a challenging backdrop of stop-start funding rounds from central government, tight budgets of their own and the same inflationary pressures faced by all sectors of the economy. The biggest challenge of all is that many are trying to ‘beat the clock’ – aiming to get their areas to net zero 15 or 25 years before the rest of the UK.

An often-repeated statistic is that 80% of the buildings we will have by 2050 are already built, which means that 20% of the buildings we will have in 2050 are still on the drawing board. The best opportunity for a local authority to make an impact at scale on local emissions comes with the local development plan process – the drawing board. This is the point at which the authority makes choices on spatial strategy – planning policies, where a development will be sited, what it will be and how it will be built. An ever-improving amount of advice and data on how to do this with energy efficiency in mind is available to planners.

Done by the book, no new development would create an additional decarbonisation to-do list for sustainability teams. However, if built with business-as-usual planning policies, the moment a development is completed and occupied it joins the queue of things to be fixed by the climate action plan. This is not the fault of planners, who face the perennial challenge of balancing all the requirements of development plans, of which climate is only one of many considerations. All policies need rigorous evidence bases, even ones relating to climate change.

The new toolkit recently published by IEMA – Practical Steps for Decarbonising Local Plans – is a starting point for a local authority to consider the GHG emissions implications of alternative policy options. Packed with resources and signposts, it sets out step-by-step guidance for local authority planning and sustainability teams to integrate their workstreams, understand baseline emissions and carbon budgets, develop policy backed by a solid evidence base, and monitor and feed back policy outcomes. It also – and this is a critical point – shines a light on the art of the possible, enabling local authorities to engage with multiple stakeholders in a way that puts emissions data forward in a transparent and objective manner.

The toolkit is available to IEMA members on the Institute’s website.

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