By Stephen Cirell
In the run up to the COP 26 Summit in Glasgow in November of this year, we are witnessing an expected ramping up of interest in climate change and global warming.
On the international scene, new President Joe Biden has sought to place the USA back at the forefront of international leadership, with a new pledge at the virtual summit of world leaders held on Earth Day (22 April 2021) of 50% reduction in emissions by 2030. There is some doubt as to whether he has the power to achieve this, with a reluctant Congress and difficult politics to overcome.
However, this event caused other nations to improve their pledges in relation to their own emissions pre- COP 26, such as Japan, South Korea and Canada.
Here in the UK, the Government has been putting its house in order for some time. First to introduce legally binding targets under the Climate Change Act 2008, those targets were raised to a position of net zero carbon by 2050 by Parliament in 2019. The independent Committee on Climate Change has published its guidance on the 6th Carbon Budget and the targets it has suggested of 78% reduction by 2035 will be brought into law next month.
Notwithstanding this, there is much to do in this country. The Committee on Climate Change remains of the view that the Government does not have in place a policy framework robust enough to deliver on the targets set and needs to improve this. The Government will introduce its long awaited Net Zero Roadmap before COP 26, meaning we can expect it in the next 3 – 4 months. The view in Whitehall will no doubt be that this completes demonstration of the UK’s climate leadership prior to COP 26 – the most important intergovernmental conference since Paris 2015 – taking place.
But can these targets be delivered? The Covid 19 pandemic has shaken the country and caused widespread disruption. Green activists have strongly urged the Government to put the green agenda at the heart of the ‘build back better’ efforts, though there is scepticism that the Government has really got this right. Doubts are caused by vastly higher sums of money going from the Treasury to areas of the economy that will have to change radically in the future in order to reach the strict emissions targets now set down.
Local authorities are probably the most important part of the jigsaw that is climate action delivery at local level. It is not widely known, but the law does not delegate the duties on climate change targets to local authorities: instead those duties remain with the Secretary of State and therefore Whitehall.
This makes it all the more surprising that the 300 or so local authorities that have declared climate emergencies in their areas, and have adopted higher targets than those provided by the Climate Change Act, have done so voluntarily.
Local authorities are pivotal to this work as they have huge influence at local level on what is referred to as ‘place’. They have regulatory roles such as town and country planning, employ many people, have considerable land and assets, run transport and infrastructure. It is difficult to see how the targets can be met without their detailed input and leadership. This was recognised by the Committee on Climate Change in its paper ‘Local Authorities and the 6th Carbon Budget’, published late last year.
Many of the declarations were made by Councils to show leadership and commitment to the goal of decarbonisation and the need to improve biodiversity. However, the reality of those pledges is now becoming clear. Many authorities chose the date of 2030 to become net zero carbon in relation to their own functions and activities. This is a huge ask and some of those commitments will not be met. This raises the issue of whether some pledges could have been better expressed in order to avoid misleading conclusions as to what might be possible.
It is also clear that offsetting will be key to this work. The idea of ‘net’ zero carbon, as opposed to zero carbon is the recognition that it is impossible for a working local authority to reduce its emissions to nil. Offsetting can be achieved in a number of different ways, but the favourites are renewable energy schemes, often solar farms or solar PV on commercial buildings or social housing. Such projects are under consideration across the local government landscape, with the size and capacity of projects increasing rapidly.
In developing action plans for reducing emissions, the three key areas will be transport, buildings and heating. Any action plan needs to address these key areas from where the greatest emissions result. There is, however, a skill in producing a good action plan, maybe over 10 years, which will reap the low hanging fruit first, whilst reserving those issues in the ‘too difficult box’ to further consideration and perhaps the development of better technology solutions in due course.
Of course, what we have not seen yet is public reaction to the success or otherwise of this work. This is because most local authorities took some time to prepare their action plans and many are still in their first year. Under normal reporting arrangements, the results of this first year’s action will be widely reported in the press and some local authorities may start to feel the pressure of public opinion to effectively deliver what those declarations ‘said on the tin.’
So the next 12 months will be key in relation to climate emergency declarations and there is still much best practice to develop. Due to interest in this topic from both within and without local Councils, Solar Media is running a training event on climate emergencies which will explore all of the relevant issues, from the proper consideration of pledges made, to how action plans can be targeted and effective.
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