The role of local government in the journey to net zero


Tackling climate change is a massive economic development opportunity that could benefit local economies across the board.

This article originally appeared in the LGC

The merchandise on sale at the Conservative party conference featured mugs with the slogan “In Truss we Trust”. After recent events it’s safe to say that trust in national government (with no thanks to Truss) is in short supply. At a time when turmoil at Westminster has become the norm, local government is, arguably, the most stable part of our democratic system.

Unlike the government at Westminster, councils have the capacity to move at speed in the midst of a challenge, as we saw during the pandemic, and again now during the cost-of-living crisis. The best local authorities work in partnership with communities and other place-based organisations to use their combined economic fire power to address the challenges facing their localities. It is this ability to build relationships and networks in a place and to understand their economic influence which makes councils key to the UK delivering net zero by 2050.

” local governments […] appreciate both the urgency of the challenge and the unique impacts on their localities”

Not only are local governments best placed to deliver, they also appreciate both the urgency of the challenge and the unique impacts on their localities. It is vital we remember that, first and foremost, the consequences of the climate emergency are local. As our climate continues to change, in the UK it is local councils and their partners who will have to pick up the pieces.

Recent analysis has shown this summer was one of the UK’s hottest on record. The consequences of rising temperatures are being felt in places across the UK as water supply falls, infrastructure comes under strain and many areas get ready for flooding this winter.

However, the climate emergency is not just about environmental consequences and how we manage and mitigate their impacts. This is a crisis which does not just demand behavioural change but economic change. It requires policy makers to build a new type of local economy which works in the interests of the planet and its people rather than simply profit for profit’s sake.

“an economy which builds wealth from within by focusing on the creation of good jobs”

This means a transition away from an economic model which sees places as valuable because of their propensity to generate extractive finance, to one which values nature and people as the bedrock of a high functioning economy. An economy which builds wealth from within by focusing on the creation of good jobs, decent living standards, plural ownership of land and property and opportunities for innovation.

Councils know better than most the difficulties and opportunities of economic transition. Places across the UK have been on a challenging economic journey from one type of carbon intensive economy to another. Many towns and cities, forged in the white heat of the industrial revolution, harnessed for their natural resources and innovative capacity, have been forced to evolve to advanced manufacturing and service sector roles.

This experience of transition will be vital again as local places struggle to come to terms with the demands of the climate crisis. Not only are the communities which led us through the first industrial revolution best placed to lead us through the next one, they are also often those communities most in need of the jobs that will come from it.

Whilst local government holds many of the answers to a just transition, it also faces very significant and multiple challenges. Not least amongst these is the devastating impacts of austerity and the reality of a highly centralized system which has removed both funding and a sense of agency from local government. The risk, then, is of emerging climate transition markets being dominated by extractive players, and thus creating more inequality whilst mitigating and adapting to the climate emergency at a slower pace.

“local authorities have been able to […] push the status quo”

However, there are examples of where local authorities have been able to work with what little they have been given, to push the status quo.

Monmouthshire CC has purchased land to establish its own solar farm, after the Welsh government approved a £4.5m repayable investment. Oldham Energy Futures is another example, where the council has supported work with communities to develop locally owned climate action plans. The project has not only produced two action plans for areas of Oldham where civic participation is traditionally low, but also developed a methodology for other councils to follow suit.

Lewes DC, working with neighbouring councils, has established a new partnership to retrofit local homes. In North Ayrshire, too, the council has pioneered the use of community wealth building to deliver renewable wind and solar energy which is delivering tangible benefits back into local communities.

“further powers and funding to be devolved locally to realise a just transition”

These practitioners have identified the art of the possible but, in many other cases, those working on the ground have been able to highlight the chasm between ambition and viability. We need to argue for further powers and funding to be devolved locally to realise a just transition. Not to do so would be to miss a massive economic development opportunity that could not only contribute to tackling the climate emergency but also benefit our local economies across the board.