The climate crisis and local authorities

Mike Childs, head of Science at Friends of the Earth, looks at how local authorities can ramp up what they are doing to tackle the current climate crisis

The call for declarations of climate emergency started in Darebin, Australia, in December 2016. The council there went on to adopt a Climate Emergency Plan in August 2017 for ‘the maximum protection for the community of Darebin and for people, civilisation and species globally, especially the most vulnerable’ and ‘to restore a safe climate at emergency speed by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions’. It started something significant.

Here in the UK more than 240 local authorities have declared a climate emergency. That sounds like urgency is the order of the day, but they are still words that require action. To achieve this, Friends of the Earth has produced guidance to help local authorities develop a vision for their area and identify what they can do using their powers, and let’s face it, not un-limited resources. More on this later.

But one of the first actions local authorities can do is to observe the adage ‘when in a hole, stop digging’. Many local authorities have declared a climate emergency but continue to promote high carbon infrastructure such as new roads or airport expansions. This must stop.

What is the climate emergency?
For those suffering more frequent flooding, more powerful hurricanes, prolonged droughts, and wildfires, ‘emergency’ isn’t too strong a word. Climate scientists are clear that the more the planet warms extreme weather will worsen and it is the poorest who will suffer most.

But that’s only one dimension of the climate emergency. Even more worrying is that if we don’t slam the brakes on now there is a very high chance that we will go past tipping points in the climate system that will cause devastating and unstoppable damage in the future. The result of this is runaway climate change with escalating temperatures that are impossible to stop.

The tipping points include: the loss of coral reefs on which tens of millions of people depend for food. They are also a nursery for around a quarter of the oceans fish. Even with 1.5 degrees of warming we will lose 70-90 per cent of coral reefs, but at 2 degrees it’s projected to be 99 per cent; the loss of ice sheets in Antarctica and/or irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could mean multi-metre sea level rise. Look at the recent coverage of Venice. Once we’ve gone past the tipping point there is no return; and destroying 40 per cent of the Amazon through logging and climate change would change it from a forest into savanna and grassland. If it were just climate change (i.e. logging had stopped) this would happen at 3 degrees of warming. But with logging and lower levels of warming combined we'd lose the Amazon earlier, releasing huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere resulting in more warming.

Avoiding these tipping points requires global action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around half by 2030 and to zero by 2050. Wealthier countries like the UK will need to move faster and where better to start than at a local level because so far central government haven’t done anywhere near as much. You may have been reading about Venice, but don’t think this won’t affect the UK.

Creating a vision for the area
Local authorities can’t do this alone. Industry, businesses, the wider public sector, communities and individuals all need to be active in this agenda. But local authorities are uniquely placed to convene these different actors in their area to come together and develop a shared vision and agenda.

Friends of the Earth has compiled and analysed a range of datasets to help in the development of a vision for a local authority area. This includes comparing current progress on this agenda between similar areas. This comparison rests on groupings of local authorities produced by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which considers geographic, economic and demographic characteristics.  The ONS data helps illustrate how similar areas are doing, and what might be a realistic goal for different types of areas (e.g. urban areas can not do as much as rural areas on renewable energy generation but can do much better on public transport, cycling and walking).

Using this data, we scored local authorities on how well they were doing in a range of issues compared to similar areas. Local authorities in areas that scored very well were very pleased, while local authorities that scored poorly were less happy. But the message is the same, all local authority areas, even the best performing, need to do so much more to address the climate emergency. No area can rest on its laurels. We will update this data as new data is published.

This data can help inform a vision for an area covering issues such as housing, transport and renewable energy.

Two-thirds of homes are poorly insulated in England and Wales. All need to be properly insulated by 2030. Tower Hamlets has the highest proportion of well insulated properties at 69 per cent whereas Pendle has only 19 per cent. Achieving 100 per cent requires significant government investment, including training and skills development. Alongside this energy efficiency programme needs to be a shift away from gas-fired heating in homes and businesses to eco-heating options such as heat pumps. Work on this has barely started.

Electric cars and vans are already available. A rapid shift to these will help substantially reduce emissions. But alone they are not enough. To meet the scale of emissions cuts required will also require at least a doubling of public transport, cycling and walking. Even in rural areas we need to see around 40 per cent of journeys by these modes, whereas in urban areas we need levels as high as 70-90 per cent. While this sounds a tall order, we can take inspiration from across the channel. Dunkerque introduced free bus travel a year ago with the result that bus use has increased 85 per cent. Half of the new bus users previously drove, and it’s been reported that 10 per cent of new bus users have sold their second car. The reason Dunkerque can afford to make buses free is because – like most other French towns – it can raise funding from a local transport payroll levy on businesses. Why not here?

Renewable energy
As we shift to electric for heating and transport, we need to produce much more renewable power. Renewable energy has dramatically fallen in cost over recent years and analysis shows that if every local authority area produced the same amount of renewable energy as the best of similar areas there would be four times more onshore renewable energy. Coupled with a very large increase in offshore windfarms the UK could easily produce all the energy it needs and even export some to neighbouring countries. Why aren’t we?

Any area vision also needs tree cover, climate adaptation, waste, and food, but the issues above are the big-ticket, big-win items.

Council action
As well as collaborating, local authorities also need to do more to reduce emissions. Friends of the Earth has produced a 50-point Climate Action Plan for councils that outlines practical actions within existing powers, for example, requiring a proper assessment of the climate change impact of recommendations before deciding on them, it identifies action on homes, transport, energy, waste and more.

We want every local authority to go through this 50-point checklist and identify to residents and others which it will take forwards immediately, which it will do later and which if any it won’t do and why. To help councils prioritise what to do first we have worked with the charity Ashden to identify the carbon impact of many of the actions, alongside the cost to the council (some actually bring in income), and any co-benefits such as improved health, equality or economic growth. The analysis is available here.

Most local authorities have rightly called a climate emergency. These words need turning into action, both through convening others to develop a vision for the area and delivering it, but as importantly through the council itself acting. Councils can’t do everything - Friends of the Earth is committed to campaigning alongside the LGA and others to get local authorities more powers and resources – but they can do something. And they must. Starting right now so that, like Darebin, ‘the maximum protection can be afforded to UK communities, and for people, civilisation and species globally, especially the most vulnerable’.

Mike Childs is head of Science, Policy and Research at Friends of the Earth and led the organisation’s successful campaign for a world-first Climate Change Act.

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