The local power to achieve net zero

The local power to achieve net zero

All eyes are naturally turned to Glasgow and the local side of COP26, as the pressure to engineer some meaningful climate change pledges before the circus leaves town intensifies.

To this end, it’s a good thing that the big guns of our own local government leadership have journeyed, in an eco-friendly manner by train of course, to make their case for the power of local.

Unlike Waterloo, the battle against out of control rising global temperatures will not be won on the playing fields of Eton. There is no one single stage of conflict, one supreme general mastermind to direct massed forces. Instead, it is a universal campaign fought everywhere by everyone for the sake of the present and the future. And the case for place is that since this is the very terrain where climate change will unavoidably be fought, what are the best strategies for ensuring victory at local level?

Localis has been looking into why local delivery matters for a report we are issuing today which is examining this through the prism of a just transition to net zero.

 Just transition means deliberating so that the benefits and burdens of building a net zero society are allocated fairly and support those most at risk of losing out from the shift. Bringing populations on board is a pre-requisite for decarbonization at scale and pace to operate within the climate change limits without sparking the political or social backlash that would put the entire programme in peril.

In this respect, the fact that many local authorities, in addition to declaring climate emergencies, have also committed to attaining net zero in advance of the UK government’s 2050 target becomes more worthy of our attention.

Taking just one core element, local labour markets will be crucial. Place-specific strategies here can help push local economies towards the direction of decarbonization and greater sustainability in a way that has the potential for a huge net gain in total employment. This will involve creating jobs in operating green technologies across diverse sectors, including manufacturing, transportation and construction – substituting jobs from high carbon to lower carbon, depleting jobs in polluting or inefficient industries as well as transforming existing jobs and massive upskilling and retraining.

This alone is a major practical way in which the local state can convene to best deliver on climate change, mitigation and adaptation. Of course, in our national context this has to fit within the existing Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution as well as the more recently published Net Zero Strategy.  While there is acknowledgment from central government that clearer expectations must be set on local government’s role in partnership with national, regional and community partners, in clarifying the resources to be made available and capacity uplift, the concern remains.

For despite the establishment of the local net zero forum – overseen by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy – to boost central-local collaboration, the fear is that the net zero strategy at local level is a mere rehash of existing disjointed policy interventions. It presents no indication that the government actually has a joined-up strategy and coherent set of expectations about the transformative role of local authorities. Instead, without reform the future struggle will be to make seemingly contradictory policies cohere around fragmented funding streams that would otherwise dilute the delivery powers of councils and undermine efforts for integrated action.

 Think global, act local used to be the watchword but this has been slightly overlooked amid the supranational focus of global diplomacy. The way forward must involve local authorities in a whole systems approach. What is needed will be the provision of resources, powers, and capacity for our local leaders to propel the big place-based changes.

Local authorities need a supportive ecosystem for them to fully act alongside some essential powers enshrined in legislation. This is beyond what is available in the Localism Act’s general power of competence. There is no one big power, lever or partnership for councils to deliver net zero. But a full suite of local powers needs to be optimised and used collectively. And power to act – using a combination of political will, public and policy support finance, capacity, the removal of barriers – as well as good old fashioned local authority determination and persistence to get stuff done.

A good place to start is council spending and procurement powers. The report last month by the Commons Housing, Communities & Local Government select committee noted the absence in the net zero strategy of any clear commitment to increasing long-term funding for local authority-led climate action. Since we cannot decarbonize on a shoestring, local self-sufficiency through some measure of energy or net zero oriented fiscal devolution becomes a stronger argument.

Procurement is also a space where councils can take responsibility. Buying of goods and services can account for up to 80% of a council’s carbon footprint factoring in big areas of spend such as waste collection, construction and social services. Well deployed, it is a perfect tool for driving down or locking out emissions while supporting growth and innovation in supply chains.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle