So you've declared a climate emergency – now what?

24-01-2020

by Rob Whiteman CBE, CIPFA CEO

I’ve usually find that the New Year offers an opportunity for reflection – to look back at the ground we’ve gained and the challenges we’ve faced. But this year, as we enter a new decade, my ambition is to squarely look to the future.

The year 2019 saw the crisis facing our planet jump to the forefront of public consciousness. A combination of extreme weather events and vocal activism from around the world made both the public and politicians stop and pay attention. By the end the year, over half of UK councils had already declared climate emergencies, with some ambitious commitments being made.

 Nottingham City Council set a target for the whole city to be carbon neutral by 2028. Bristol City Council committed to making the city carbon neutral by 2030. Many of the pledges being made are well in excess of the national target to be carbon neutral by 2050. These are not just noble but necessary ambitions and there is rightly obvious reputational capital to be gained from such declarations. However to date, but it’s only early days, there is limited evidence of concrete action to tackle these emergencies.

One of the biggest challenges is the fact that climate change is not restricted to geography or sector. The public sector will therefore need to work together with the private sector, the public at large, and indeed other geographies, if substantial strides are to be made.

That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for local government to take a greener approach to financial decision making, even if it comes come at a cost. At present, the focus of local authorities remains on economic growth and financial sustainability, which increasingly is also seen as a means to complement a desire to pursue environmental goals. There are though going to be instances where trade-offs may have to be made. Manchester City Council’s plans, for example, to become carbon neutral by 2038 specifically exclude airport emissions. This is unsurprising given the authority’s majority stake in Manchester Airport and strong growth of the regional economy.

This also goes for public sector pensions. For some time, pension funds have been exploring how to balance the need to make more sustainable investments with the need to deliver the best outcomes for their members. This balancing act between environmental ambitions and financial outcomes will need to shift as the green agenda gathers pace. Ultimately as incentives and regulation take hold, being green will more overtly be good business.

So what could actionable green finance look like in practice? For a start councils, unlike the private sector have powers they can leverage in support of reducing their carbon footprint – namely the ability to levy fees and charges to fund sustainability projects. Nottingham City Council’s workplace parking levy, for example, has generated over £44m of revenue since 2012, enabling the city to double the size of its tram network and redevelop the railway station, encouraging commuters out of their cars. Nottingham now has the highest level of bus/tram usage per head outside of London.

Social housing also presents opportunities for councils to make a difference and deliver on their social value obligations. Norwich City Council’s Goldsmith Street recently won the 2019 Stirling Prize for its innovative eco-friendly design. The airtight design, in theory, should reduce energy bills for tenants to around £150 a year, addressing local fuel poverty as well as climate change.

The creation of more sustainable procurement processes could offer some quick route towards achieving green credentials. This could vary from sourcing local goods to reduce transit emissions to sourcing primarily or only recycled materials and products.

There are of course improvements that could be made in areas outside of the sector’s control. Government support for local authorities looking to become carbon neutral could be more sensibly structured. Financial support towards sustainability goals is a minefield, with different grants and pots of money scattered across multiple departments. Bringing this all into one place would streamline support, make it easier to access, and likely increase take-up.

And as always, accountability is key to success. Responsibility for this ambition will have to be clearly assigned, and robust reporting arrangements put in place to track progress towards each authority’s individual commitments and demonstrate results to the local community.

Ultimately, the move towards a more sustainable public sector is going to require a fundamental shift in the sector’s priorities. For as long as one-dimensional return on investment is the paramount concern, other goals, including sustainability, will have to fit in around it. Officers, councillors and local communities will need to view all activity in their area through the primary lens of the climate crisis for this impasse to subside and make a meaningful difference.

This article first appeared in Local Government Chronicle.