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Lingering austerity stymies local carbon-cutting efforts

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Amid mounting financial pressures, E&T analysis finds many local authorities lack expertise on the perils of carbon emissions and risk failure in future reduction commitments.

What is the quickest way to clamp down on carbon emissions? The global financial crisis, says Mags Tingey, who studies local government low-carbon strategies as part of the Heat and the City research group at the University of Edinburgh. “There is a clear correlation between the impact of the financial crisis and emissions,” she says. This theory held true while waning energy demand in 2008 and 2009 caused emissions to dive universally. But could we find solutions that work just as decisively at a local level – and without the eventual turmoil?  

E&T investigated the factors that could influence local councils in their carbon reduction efforts, gathering extensive data on English local authorities and their carbon footprints from 2005-2016. Records were compared with councils that have recently declared a state of ‘climate emergency’ or set similarly ambitious climate targets.

English councils and climate emergency

Image credit: Ben Heubl for E&T

Analysis shows that few of the local authorities sounding the alarm over climate change are among those struggling to reduce their carbon footprints (see map). These environmentally conscious areas, such as Brighton, are clearly visible when laid out geographically. “There are lots of reasons why councils declare climate change emergency and one of them is that they already made good progress and feel this is a more positive issue and [they] had some capacity and learning that would benefit them to sign up. Larger cities in competition, the core cities, are more keen,” Andy Gouldson, professor of environmental policy at the University of Leeds, told E&T.

According to Durham University geographer Professor Harriet Bulkeley, local authorities acting ahead of the curve often do so in order to be recognised as political champions which set an example by going above and beyond what is required of them. “They say ‘actually this should be our responsibility even if we are not legally obliged’. It’s beyond the mandate and public remit,” she says. Meanwhile, other regions in England are quietly starved of the resources necessary to take on climate change.

On 1 May, MPs backed a motion to declare a UK-wide environment and climate change emergency, following the examples of the Scottish and Welsh governments. However, serious questions remain unanswered: will the government adopt the advice of the Independent Committee on Climate Change  to eliminate net carbon emissions by 2050, or Extinction Rebellion’s more ambitious calls for elimination by 2025? On a local level, how can local authorities be supported to cut their carbon emissions?

Despite international rulebooks and a 2012 independent statutory review laying out some measures local authorities could adopt,  there is a serious lack of guidance, let alone funding. “There is no standardised way, no single metric or measure, framework, map or model, that every local authority could adopt,” says Gouldson.

Analysis of recent carbon reduction efforts found English councils to have highly variable success over the past decade, with few patterns immediately obvious. E&T found that the slowest progressing councils, with per-capita emissions exceeding 12 tonnes of CO2 per year (notably Hartlepool, North Warwickshire, High Peak and Staffordshire Moorlands) are situated in the Midlands and North of England. Many of these areas represent former industrial towns ravaged by three decades of economic decline and deep cuts to public services under austerity policies. People living in these areas are often characterised as disillusioned by national government, and were more likely to vote in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. Local authorities’ carbon reduction programmes have been harmed by years of austerity; Gouldson explains that Birmingham’s entire sustainability department has been affected. In Leeds, staff numbers more than halved since 2008.

Climate emergency in English councils

Image credit: E&T - Ben Heubl

Local experts are evidently scarce. When E&T contacted some of the English councils that had made the least progress in reducing their local carbon footprint, there was often bewilderment at the other end of the line about who could tell us about their climate change strategy. This is no surprise. While local authorities’ finances have been cut deeply,  areas of ‘statutory responsibly’ such as education and social care have faced rising costs.

“There is a ‘jaws-of-death’ situation where overall resources have gone down, cost of some core services have gone up and therefore the non-core activities, such as climate change, are just increasingly crowded out. And so local authorities, especially smaller ones, just don’t have the capabilities to deal with the issue,” Gouldson explains.

While the Scottish government provides substantive legislative support for local carbon reduction efforts, many experts agree that the lack of statutory responsibility for carbon reduction initiatives in England is a major problem. With statutory responsibility comes funding and resources, which would lead to progress, especially in areas where change is slow and money is tight.

Even for Oxford council – where in early May £81m was granted for two projects, according to a local politician – lack of access to funding remains a problem: at one point Oxford council had to claim to be ‘worse off’ in their air quality levels than the government perceived it to be (supported by the council’s own data) to qualify for funding, according to a local spokesperson.

At the other end of the spectrum, as Gouldson agrees, there are some major outliers in areas with carbon-intensive industries. E&T’s analysis of English councils found that the number of enterprises per inhabitant and ‘gross value added’ – a measure of the value generated by any unit engaged in the production of goods and services – bore limited predictive power over historic local carbon footprints.

Likewise, changes in English councils’ net current expenditures between 2013 and 2018 showed an ambiguous trend; specifically on expenditure dedicated to cutting carbon emissions (see charts), councils spending more may not have seen much bang for their buck.

The problem is that most councils have limited influence over their local footprint; according to Bulkeley, the baseline and impact a council has on in-house emissions can be quite small. “Compare the city of Los Angeles, which runs its own energy and water and the port of LA: the city council has a huge carbon footprint. With London, what the [Mayor’s office] is directly responsible for on carbon emissions is rather limited.”

Bulkeley suggests that councils take on a different strategy when considering how to handle urgent, well-defined issues related to climate change, and ask themselves what is their present pressing problem relating to climate change – such as air pollution, lack of green space, or flooding.

Councils have so far only had a very small share of control over local emissions in cities, says Tingey; this could be around 1 per cent, as is the case for Oxford. Instead, opportunities for influencing local action arises from local climate partnerships, such as ‘Low Carbon Oxford’ – an agreement to establish a citizens’ assembly as part of the council’s climate emergency work. Ties are struck with the largest energy users in the city and they all come together to agree, year on year, annual reduction targets and how to work towards them. Tom Hayes, board member for safer, greener, environment at Oxford City Council, says that partnerships are key. His demand to central government is “not to be so absorbed with Brexit and start making decisions around our climate future. After the climate change motions in Parliament, we need to see actions following words,” he says.

Other demographic factors were considered in E&T’s analysis. Income, in the form of median earnings and the share of citizens of low social grade, presented relatively little predictive value. This stands in contrast with the global picture historically portraying a distinct rich-poor carbon emission divide (although this is changing according to more recent analyses: six of the top ten emitters now are developing countries).

In England, while the richest 10 per cent of the population still produce the most greenhouse gas emissions, climate justice studies show that they are quite varied in their location and spread across local authority areas. “Analytically it is a very interesting challenge,” notes Bulkeley. “If a city says we ought to cut emissions, does that mean that everyone in the city has equal responsibility? Globally, we would say no. But at an urban level, we don’t question it.”

Bulkeley thinks some of this growth in Green Party support relates to increasing public interest in climate change and biodiversity. A recent poll suggests growing public concern about climate change, with seven in ten people now saying climate change has already an impact in the UK. “More broadly, for the two main political parties I think historically it was more difficult to pick apart the one from the other on these issues,” she says. There are both pros and cons in seeing little difference between main parties: it can be harder to get consistent policy developed and momentum politically for the issue when the two main parties present little conflict in their views. On the other hand, competition for the same cause may drive them to be more ambitious, she says.

Experts point to the great volume of opportunities that have not been exploited by local councils. The emissions reductions that are presented in the data have largely been driven by decarbonisation of the electricity grid, says Tingey – with limited impact made by local authorities’ responsibility. Now as the focus shifts further towards councils’ remit, innovativeness and customisation could unlock a whole new layer of reductions.

Bulkeley concedes that there are plenty of low-hanging fruit. For example, local electricity companies would increasingly experiment with gamifying the use of electricity and introducing competition, which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To lay bare the opportunities on a local level, it would be crucial “to make some of the boring things fun and make them more visible”.

For cities at the cutting edge, including Oxford, Leeds and others, the prize and reward seems crystal clear. One study found that UK’s 50 largest cities could save £7bn per year and create great additional employment by adopting simple measures to cut their energy use and counter climate change.

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