Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg has now completed her European tour to raise awareness of climate change as accelerating carbon emissions continue hurtling the planet towards disaster.
Given the scale of the challenge, what can local authorities do to raise the odds of having a world they can hand on to future generations? Even the relatively conservative 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report says emissions must be cut in half within the next decade – but people are increasing disillusioned about the ability of governments and mainstream political parties to take action quickly enough.
How much progress is local government making in helping their communities reduce carbon emissions? Oxford City Council is in the vanguard of the sustainability movement. Last year it revealed plans to get rid of petrol and diesel vehicles from the city centre, with the ultimate goal of delivering a zero-emission zone in 2035.
In January the council’s members unanimously declared a climate emergency and it is set to become the first UK local authority to establish a citizens’ assembly to help address climate change and to consider the action that should be taken in the city. The recommendations of the citizens assembly will aid the council in its final decisions on adoption of carbon abatement measures and targets.
It is estimated that the council is responsible for just 1% of total CO2 emissions to Oxford’s air. The council is a member of Low Carbon Oxford, a network of 40 public and private organisations that aims to reduce citywide emissions by 40% of 2005 levels by 2020.
And in the last month the council has announced initiatives of more than £80m, including an Energy Superhub in the city, which will host one of the world’s largest batteries to support electric vehicle charging and low-carbon heat networking and creating a new ‘smart grid’. It has also secured additional funding to upgrade the city’s buses to Euro 6 standard – with the first one to hit the streets imminently – and to bring the first zero emission-capable taxi to the Oxford streets. The council will also commission research to help develop potential targets for carbon reduction in areas such as housing and transport.
The council has provided a leadership role in terms of helping people, communities and partners to reduce emissions, according to assistant chief executive of Oxford City Council Caroline Green. ‘There is a huge amount going on. Through our existing measures we think we are on course to meet our existing targets, and the city council itself has a 5% annual reduction target.’
She added: ‘There is also the Energy Superhub, which is basically a massive battery that stores and can resupply energy to the grid, including renewable energy, and that will give us the opportunity to go much faster with our low carbon vehicle charging. We and our partners are really out there looking at what are the new technologies, and what are the new opportunities.’
But looking across the board at councils, to what extent are they able to take a strategic approach to tightening carbon emissions? Dr Andy Johnston is the chief operating officer of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) and was CEO of Local Energy, a social enterprise of the LGiU which has now ceased operating.
Mr Johnston said the company was ‘heavily involved’ in the Green Deal – UK Government policy initiative introduced in the Energy Act 2011 that gave homeowners, landlords and tenants the opportunity to pay for energy-efficient home improvements. But the Government ‘walked away, energy-efficiency grants all dried up and local government withdrew from local energy efficiency programmes’.
No central Government replacement policy emerged and some local authorities have now set up their own municipal energy companies, said Mr Johnston. This includes Nottingham City Council, which launched Robin Hood Energy as a not-for-profit company in 2015. It has just been awarded a multi-million pound contract to supply 100% green energy to power the tram network in Nottingham. Mr Johnston said: ‘I am seeing the focus shifting. Where local authorities are making real progress is around transport initiatives – with trams reducing emissions from transport.’
But 10 years of austerity and the shift in focus that resulted has meant there are just ‘far fewer people in environmental teams fewer strategic planners’, he pointed out.
Rupert Clubb is director of communities, economy and transport at East Sussex CC. He told The MJ the council already has a strong commitment to mitigating climate change. This included a commitment to reducing corporate carbon emissions by 3% a year ‘in line with the national target of an 80% reduction between 1990 and 2050’. Between 2008/09 and 2017/18 the council reduced its emissions by about 53%.
He added: ‘We are also supporting those in fuel poverty through a range of measures including improving insulation and installing more efficient boilers. We’re delivering free energy audits and awarding grants to local businesses to improve their energy efficiency and support them to invest in renewable energy. Also, we are encouraging the take-up of the Sussex Tariff, which includes 100% renewable energy’.
East Sussex CC has also been closely involved in developing a tri-LEP energy strategy, which includes the South East LEP, Coast to Capital and Enterprise M3, and it has recently begun work with a range of local organisations on updating the East Sussex environmental strategy.
But in conclusion, Caroline Green at Oxford City Council said ‘you can do everything you can locally, but if the majority of the grid is not from low carbon sources then there’s a limit to what individual authorities can do’.
What’s needed, she added, is ‘a clear Government strategy and a long-term approach to the investment’.
‘Through some very focused attention on it we’ve been quite successful at getting funding where it’s available. But for it to work for the whole of the country you need a strategy – and an investment strategy alongside it.’