Climate emergency is here. For local economies, this changes everything.

As we head into a new decade, it is now impossible to ignore the fact that the climate emergency will be the dominant issue above all others in the 2020s.

Whether it be Bolsonaro burning the Amazon or, closer to home, vast flooding across Yorkshire and the Peak District, events in recent months have breathed terrifying life into Greta Thunberg’s assertion that ‘we need to act as if our house is on fire, because it is.’

This daunting issue will require responses at all levels; from the corridors of power at the United Nations to local places. Given the deep grip that carbon and ecological degradation has on our economies at all levels, it is clear that nothing less than a mass mobilisation of every resource at our disposal must be harnessed in this fight. 2019 has been a year in which an unprecedented global movement for climate justice has emerged, led by the young.

“The 2019 general election is arguably Britain’s first climate election.”

Given the scale of this crisis, it is perhaps understandable that the majority of the focus thus far has been on what can be done at the macro-level, in particular focusing on the role of national government. On both sides of the Atlantic, activists are rallying around the concept of a ‘Green New Deal’; a mass programme of national investment to decarbonise the economy and ensure a just transition to green jobs. The urgent need for national government to respond to the emergency is now accepted across the political spectrum and, with political parties centring their manifestos around ideas in this space, the 2019 general election is arguably Britain’s first ‘climate election.’

National action is obviously important, but there is a risk in assuming that top-down action alone will be enough to ‘solve’ the climate crisis. Moving beyond extractive fossil capitalism will require more than just changing the energy sources in our economy; it will also mean developing new paradigms for how we manage our lived and natural environments. It is at the local level that we make key decisions which affect the air we breathe, the streets we walk, and the buildings we live in and we are now seeing contestations in cities across the world about how we plan, design, and live in our places.

“There is a rising consciousness that the local must play an integral role”

That is why CLES is now devoting intellectual and organisational capacity to answering the question; how can we tackle the climate emergency at the local level? There is a rising consciousness that the local must play an integral role in response to this question, with 64% of district, county, unitary and metropolitan councils in the UK having declared a climate emergency. However, there is currently a lack of clarity about what this actually means in policy and practice?

To answer this question, CLES brought together a roundtable of leading policy experts to begin teasing out what action can be taken locally. On 19th November 2019, our first workshop included a wide range of participants from all regions of the UK. At the session, we invited participants to share key insights into the policy areas which could form part of local responses to climate emergency. In particular, we looked at the role local and combined authorities might play in developing comprehensive policy initiatives in areas such as energy, transport, housing, and changing the consumption patterns of local citizens.

“Teasing out the policy implications in these areas allowed us to look at… what new powers local government might need to respond to this challenge.”

What emerged was a fascinating series of insights about the crucial role the local must play in tackling the climate emergency. For example, participants discussed issues around how local authorities could seek take a climate justice approach to transport in their areas. In an approach centred around decarbonisation, it is clear that congestion charges might work. However, if we are aiming to respond to climate emergency with a comprehensive ‘Green New Deal’ approach, then the better option is to push for free public transit, with incentives for citizens to transition away from private car usage. Teasing out the policy implications in these areas allowed us to not only look at what local government can do within the existing policy framework, but also what new powers local government might need to respond to this challenge.

The key lesson we took from the session is that climate justice is economic justice, and economic justice is climate justice. In other words, the goal of setting up a municipal energy company (e.g. Hackney Light and Power) is not only to decarbonise, but it is to democratise and decommodify. Any local Green New Deal must be rooted in these principles, with an intentional desire to drive for universal basic services for all, a just transition for workers, and an end to extractive fossil capitalism.

“This is a generation-defining challenge, and we are ready to play our part.”

In the coming months, CLES will produce a report ‘Towards a local Green New Deal’; a landmark publication setting out the precise steps local authorities can take to tackle the climate emergency. We are thankful to the experts and activists who have helped us so far on this journey, and extend an open hand to all those in local government and beyond who want to share knowledge and ideas. This is a generation-defining challenge, and we are ready to play our part.

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