Climate emergency requires local economic restructuring

This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle

The community wealth movement has four key actions that will help councils meet the challenge of climate change – ‘greening’ existing practice is insufficient.

Around 70% of all councils across the UK have now declared a climate emergency, with ambitious carbon reduction targets. While acknowledgment of the crisis is an important first step, the pressing need is to now make these declarations meaningful in terms of radical action and progressive practice.

In calling an ‘emergency’, councils are acknowledging that something unprecedented is happening and there is an enormous and immediate challenge. Furthermore, as local place leaders, councils are sending a serious and extraordinary message to citizens and other key institutions. Declaring a climate emergency – while made on a voluntary basis – is a clarion call for a serious step change, with an acknowledgement that a deep intentional correction to the systemic causes to the climate crisis must be made rapidly.

“We have tended to perceive ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ as discrete physical and human society spheres, [but] the connection between the two is now impossible to ignore.”

While in previous times we have tended to perceive ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ as discrete physical and human society spheres, the connection between the two is now impossible to ignore. The economy that has fuelled our progress and lifestyles for centuries has been founded and sustained by the extraction of resources from our natural systems, primarily in the form of fossil fuel usage and the degradation of our ecosystem. As such a mere bend to our global, national and local economic systems will be insufficient. Instead a meaningful climate emergency response will have at its heart a recognition that we must make a fundamental shift in how and who an economy functions for, and that it must cease its dependency on fossil fuels.

In this, developing a local green new deal offers councils the means by which they can play a role in developing an economy which operates wholly within planetary limits and move to end the damaging link with fossil fuels.

“Elements of co-production and deliberative democracy will be an essential part of building broad consensus for the necessary emergency transition.”

Tackling climate emergency presents a challenge to our local democracy and how our local councils operate.  Unacceptable levels of social injustice and inequality – which for many years have bedevilled our country – are being recast under the climate crisis with the poorest in our society likely to suffer more, though things like poorer quality and energy less efficient housing, and where wealthier citizens will see huge shifts in lifestyle choices, such as curbs to car commuting.

As such, strong democratic leadership and new elements of co-production and deliberative democracy will be an essential part of building broad consensus for the necessary emergency transition. The choices that will need to be made are unprecedented and thorny.

In looking to find a means by which we can restructure the composition of the economy, the fast-growing community wealth building movement might offer a useful frame. Representing a fundamental challenge to how the economy is presently conceptualised and used under extractive fossil capitalism, community wealth building offers a more localised, social, democratic and green economy set of practices, which will be essential in tackling the emergency. This involves four key actions.

Firstly, new forms of local and more democratic ownership.

In seeking to build a new ecologically responsible economy, we are starting to see councils and citizens taking more direct control and oversight of key carbon emitting economic activity. For example, councils are beginning to work towards municipal owned energy systems as ways of ensuring green economic alternatives can be developed.  This includes the identification of renewable energy projects and providing funding for community energy schemes, and forming their own energy companies. There is huge potential to scale up these interventions. Examples of this include schemes such as Bristol Energy, Nottingham’s Robin Hood energy, and, recently, Hackney Light and Power. It is also significant that the mayor of London last month launched London Power, a collaboration between City Hall and Octopus Energy to encourage residents to switch to renewable energy sources.

Secondly, financing a green new deal.

There are considerable funding constraints already facing local authorities, with restrictions of capacity, borrowing and so on. As such, responses to the emergency within a comprehensive national transition programme are significantly fettered within existing financial context. Nevertheless, things can be done as regards existing finance. For example, local authority pension funds should be are encouraged to redirect investment from global markets to local schemes. With councillors across the land on the boards of pensions funds, they need to seek to ask questions and consider how investment portfolios can be moved from fossil fuels and redirected to local green economic activity and green energy schemes. This activity must sit alongside supporting mutually owned banks and regional banking. These should be charged with enabling community wealth building and financing the energy transition.

Thirdly, industrial strategies.

The Centre for Alternative Technology estimate that providing 100% of UK primary energy from renewables by 2030 would generate a net number of 1.33 million jobs. With this in mind, local industrial strategies must be focused on producing the green workforce of the future. Sectors such as marine, wind and solar, transport and construction, and new employment opportunities provided by carbon capture processes, provide a great potential to create millions of jobs and revitalise rural and ex-industrial local economies.

Fourthly, progressive procurement of goods and services.

By adapting their procurement processes and decision making, local public sector anchor institutions can create dense local supply chains, reducing the carbon footprint of goods and services. In this way, anchors can use their influence to ensure that their suppliers commit to greening their practices, for example, by including life-cycle costing in value for money assessments in tender opportunities, including the costs of externalities such as CO2.

“Local authorities now need to view every single function through a climate emergency lens.”

These four activities are a good start, but the truth is that local authorities now need to view every single function through a climate emergency lens. From procurement to workforce strategies, the full force of the public sector must be mobilised. Crucially, this must go beyond simply ‘greening’ existing practice, but instead must be a full-scale democratic movement for environmental and economic justice. The scale of the challenge demands nothing less.