Local government and climate action
8 November 2021
At a glance
- The way we live is causing climate change. However, the question of transition, or “how” we change to reduce our climate change impacts, is still under debate.
- While local governments don’t have all the power to makes the necessary changes, they can become pivotal players, working upwards with national governments and international organisations and downwards with grassroots organisations, the private sector and, most importantly, the communities they represent and serve.
- As place-based leaders, local government can implement organisational and technical changes to reduce climate change and help people adapt to its impacts.
What is the problem?
Climate change is causing multiple impacts
Climate change is affecting life at the local scale, in cities and urbanised areas as well as rural and coastal communities. Warming temperatures, sea level rise and extreme weather events are impacting even the richest cities in the world. Climate change may also increase inequality and act as a barrier to development. The way local governments respond to climate change will be different according to the perceived risks, experiences and resources of each individual area.
Countries in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere subtropics are projected to experience the largest impacts on economic growth due to climate change, should global warming reach 2°C above pre-industrial levels (IPCC, 2018). At the same time many of these countries are experiencing fast growth in their urban populations. This will increase both the climate risk of those populations and the need for local authorities in those regions to intensify both adaptation and mitigation measures.
In the UK context, while many local authorities are taking action to reduce emissions, they have different levels of resources to respond to the problems, and even those with sufficient resources are not currently ready to reach net zero targets. Well-resourced authorities can undertake more climate action to limit the effects of climate change, allowing those with fewer resources to learn from them, so that, with more resources, they can avoid some of the pitfalls to achieve similar goals and creating a net positive benefit.
What are the key characteristics of the problem?
The issues go to the heart of our way of life
Cities, towns, the connecting countryside and coasts can be seen as elements within a net of interactions that shape human life. In this sense, people’s consumption patterns, working and living styles and the way they travel about come together in a network of local spaces. Local governments are the closest government level to these interactions.
These interactions in cities (where most UK people live) are driving change in our climate and in turn increasing risks to the liveability of cities. We need to understand the links between what we do and the impacts or consequences of our actions, in order to change the way we do things in our local area. We also need to understand the limits of individual and local government power, to push for the bigger changes needed at the national level.
What is the solution?
There is a slow awakening of local governments to the impacts of climate change in their cities, towns and regions. To progress and accelerate change local governments can work on:
- Organisational improvements
Strengthening internal capabilities to respond to climate challenges, related to planning, skills and funding. Years of employing big consulting firms instead of local officers have resulted in a shortage of skills in local government. While such consulting work might be appropriate for some projects, the result has been a public sector in which officers to not have the internal capacity to deliver local political priorities, including climate action. This is a lost opportunity to upskill people in local communities to work on projects close to their homes. Local government needs the funding and skills to demonstrate leadership, with a broad and collaborative approach to planning and action. Some local governments are issuing Green Climate Bonds to implement local investment projects, thereby reducing dependence on other sources of funding.
Identifying local causes of emissions and understanding what powers local government has to tackle them, making use of scientific evidence and innovation to inform policy. By taking action to cut emissions and reduce vulnerabilities, local governments can gain multiple co-benefits from climate action. Co-benefits are beneficial outcomes that are not directly related to climate mitigation, and examples include cleaner air, job creation, health benefits and biodiversity improvement. Embedding co-benefits in climate action planning can help cities to bolster support from key stakeholders, mobilise scarce resources, maximise opportunities to address multiple social, environmental and economic challenges, and accelerate climate action.
Working collaboratively upstream with national government and international organisations to push for reforms that depend on them, while leading and working collaboratively downstream with grassroots organisations, the private sector, and citizens to convey a unified strategy and decentralise implementation with all stakeholders. While local government will not always have the power to change everything by itself, it can provide support, organisational capacity and leadership to facilitate change, for example, through the promotion of citizen engagement, the promotion of innovation, convening academic/public/private collaboration and participating in knowledge exchange forums.
Promotion of circular economy, involving the reuse, recycling and recovery of resources to reduce waste, promote the more efficient use of resources and improve climate outcomes.
The city as an experimental playground: experimentation is seen as a way to overcome barriers related to innovation such as risk aversion and incrementalism. At the centre of innovation and climate change we find community engagement. This is seen in the examples of citizen assemblies, citizen science, living labs, trials, demonstrations or pilot schemes. By including the local community in innovative projects, local government could gain more legitimacy.
Identify financial support and new business models: the prospects for local funding for climate mitigation and adaptation are increasingly worrying. Local governments need to juggle climate mitigation, adaptation, job generation and economic development in a way that social and environmental costs from the latter are paid by those who obtain the benefits, to provide revenue or extra goods and services for communities.
Engage in knowledge exchange with other local authorities from around the world: there are thousands of cities working in networks and initiatives to accelerate climate action. They have gone through similar issues and have overcome them in different ways. Local authorities could save precious time and resource by using existing material, discussing with neighbouring cities about similar challenges or learning new approaches or technologies from cities far away.
Be data-wise through carbon data reporting and climate action planning: data helps understand local climate impact and this is crucial to get to net zero by 2050. It also helps set long term and interim targets and track their progress against those targets. By generating data, local authorities can identify gaps in their knowledge and the resources they need to fill these. By disclosing the data they can help others to build on the methodologies used and lessons learned. Those local authorities that have a climate action plan are report five times more mitigation actions than those without one. Data quality and accessibility will be key enablers to track progress and increase climate action.
Who needs to do what by when to get to net zero?
Local governments are increasingly implementing Climate Action Plans and Energy Action Plans. These often include targets and methodologies to achieve net zero. The private and non-governmental sectors, as well as citizens, need to be engaged throughout the process of defining and implementing such plans. National governments from developed countries need to encourage and support similar actions in developing countries through bilateral or multilateral mechanisms, to plan and implement net zero measures.
Local government also needs to focus on upskilling their human resources, intensifying knowledge-sharing opportunities with other regions, and increasing engagement with national governments and with economic and social organisations in the local context. Following discussion with local stakeholders, regulations will need to change for the transition to net zero at the local level to be implemented.