Lay the foundations of social, economic and climate justice


This article originally appeared in the LGC.

In recognition of today’s Global Climate Strike and Fridays for Future’s demand for intersectional climate justice, CLES’s Ellie Radcliffe explores the role of local authorities in the UK in delivering a future where people and planet are jointly prioritized.

Since the autumn of 2018 – when Bristol City Council became the first – no less than 319 of the UK’s local authorities have declared a climate emergency. However, while committing to tackling the climate crisis is an important step, ultimately actions speak louder than words.

In the UK, many local authorities have been taking action – in spite of the disjointed approach from Westminster and a collective £3bn hole in budgets following the pandemic – albeit at varying scales and paces. Over the past year CLES, in partnership with Carbon Co-op, has been working with organisations and individuals from across the UK to source a toolkit that will enable councils to deliver a just energy transition, using community wealth building as a frame. In the process, we have observed efforts to tackle energy poverty in Plymouth, the use of retrofit to build green jobs and supply chains in Nottingham, and the creation of local energy action plans driven by local communities in Oldham, to name just a few.

“the councils involved in these projects have recognised an important fact”

These examples demonstrate the innovative action being taken to bring together climate, social and economic justice across the UK. Moreover, the councils involved in these projects have recognised an important fact: it is dangerously naïve to detach the changes needed to address and adapt to the climate crisis from our global, national and local economies. For a truly just transition, we must couple the need to decarbonise with efforts to advance alternative models of ownership, address social inequalities and shape the local economy in a way that serves people as well as the planet.

A just local transition

CLES has previously argued that any green recovery is unlikely to succeed without an understanding of the political economy factors which have driven the climate emergency. The UK government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution is dominated by the intention to “lay the foundations for decades of economic growth”, which fundamentally misses the point. The endless quest for growth has significantly contributed to the emergency we now face – we need a shift in how our economy functions if we hope to tackle it. The environmental havoc wrought by our current approaches to economic development must shift, instead, to thriving within social and ecological limits (as discussed in our recent webinar with Kate Raworth, the author of Doughnut Economics).

“we run the risk of pushing the costs onto those already suffering”

Similarly, any green recovery which does not address the social pain caused by the current economic status quo or mitigate the impact of transition on those already struggling will fall woefully short of the just transition we need. Just this week we have seen a prime example of the disastrous social impacts we can expect to see in coming years. With the energy market crisis threatening price rises, those already struggling to make ends meet will be disproportionately impacted. As efforts are made to mitigate against and adapt to climate change, we run the risk of pushing the costs onto those already suffering due to the current economic system.

While a just transition should be the ambition of government at every level, at the local level we should prioritise laying the foundations of social, economic and climate justice together to ensure that our economies and our climate action work for people, place and planet. Only then will we build the future the children striking for the climate today deserve.

A crisis in the political climate

COP26 will likely herald the call to scale up climate action at all levels but it is important to acknowledge that climate change itself is experienced most vividly at the local level, as are the efforts to mitigate against it and to adapt to it. Councils, therefore, will soon have little choice but to take more and faster action to tackle the climate emergency. However, the UK is in a position now where the role of local governments in tackling the defining issues of our time, from levelling up to the climate emergency, is being increasingly unrecognised and under-valued.

“the role of councils is far more than that of a mechanism for service delivery”

To prevent flooding in Calderdale, to address the urban heat island effect in Birmingham, and to prevent biodiversity loss in Suffolk, local authorities need the national government to recognise that the role of councils is far more than that of a mechanism for service delivery. Not only are local authorities best placed to diagnose and shape the just transition for the communities they serve, as the seats of local democracy their activity is directly and significantly shaped by the voices and votes of local people.

Just last month, climate change was recorded as the most important issue of concern to 32% of Britons, second only to the pandemic. It is clear then, that climate change, as well as being an intersectional issue that governments of all sizes must grapple with, is also a political issue. Disempowering local government to act on it before their citizens reach the ballot box is a dangerous game.