Good Cop or Bad Cop?

By Paul O'Brien and Mo Baines | 16 November 2021
  • Paul O'Brien

It is recognised that climate action must happen across all spheres of government, but uniquely at the local level, the value of sustainable planning, transport, housing, and urban and green infrastructure, has a critical role to play. In this context the COP26 local government day should have provided a unifying experience and grounds for some optimism. However, whilst we have reasons to be cheerful, given the commitment of local government, and individual councils, there are also grounds for caution, particularly when it comes to climate finances.

To deal with the optimism first. A showcase event from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association brought together innovations from across NI. The current absence of legislation hasn’t deterred councils from doing the right thing. From restoring peat bogs in Fermanagh and Omagh, to the creation of community woodlands from former landfill sites in Mid-Ulster, the 11 district councils are taking both mitigation and adaptation seriously.

It is a similar story in Wales, where councils like Swansea are taking forward ground-breaking schemes such as the ‘Swansea Standard’ on new homes, complete with air-source-heat pumps, as well as championing tidal energy. In Scotland, the Soil Association in conjunction with Scottish local councils, is squaring the circle between the negative impact of food on the carbon footprint of school-meals with the benefits of more local sourcing and plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy.

In England, councils are awash with initiatives to tackle both the climate and ecological emergency; from large scale energy projects to EV infrastructure, alongside rewilding and reforestation, there is no shortage of local action.

However, we all know that given the scale of the challenge, to limit global-warming below 1.5 degrees, and quite literally stem the rising tides, the catastrophe of climate change is crying out for trillions of dollars, much of which must be spent at a local level. Unprecedented investment in public assets and infrastructure, retrofitting homes and buildings, creating new green urban environments and genuinely sustainable transport solutions must be leveraged. So, the question is ‘where will the money come from?’.

From the COP26 local government day it appears some financial predators may already be circling in answer to this question. Whilst APSE supports Mark Carney’s calls, as the UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, for private finance to be aligned to achieving net-zero, in one particular COP26 session, on sustainable climate finance for local government, some disturbing assumptions were made. First up some of the global finance houses were keen to suggest that local councils simply did not have the expertise to deliver complex financial instruments, suggesting the only way to achieve net-zero ambitions was to de facto hand over the job to the ‘experts’.  Secondly, the demands for finance slices in many directions. Whilst the developed nations are focused on mitigation the smaller poorer nations need billions for adaptations; they have low emissions but suffer the most grievous harm from climate change; yet the finance houses arguing for involvement in financing climate change, were remarkably silent on the social-justice arguments for ‘loss and damage’ payments to those same nations.

The cynic might therefore argue that the real debate was not the Carney view, of aligning finance to net-zero, but rather how can the international finance houses commodify climate change for a return on their investments? Was this therefore a pitch for some form of ‘climate PFI’? A means to introduce private funding for big returns into large scale projects. Whilst no one would argue that climate change can be dealt with purely through public finances, which of itself raises the spectre of intergenerational fairness (should our kids be picking up the tax-tab for our own historic failures?) there is a real danger that the priorities for investment become driven by monetary returns, rather than what is best for achieving successes in both mitigation and adaptations at a global, national, regional and local level.

With increases in our urban populations local government is critical to the success of both  mitigation and adaptation strategies but this has to be guided by the science, not shareholders. Big questions remain as to how we fund research and development, recognising some of that risk is already taken by the private sector, for example in developing new technologies. However, we should not allow unabated ‘disaster capitalism’ to set the tone.

Local council strategies need to be driven by fairness and justice; such principals may not be comfortable bedfellows with funding-models driven by returns or consumer behaviours. We need to get the balance right. This must include significant direct funding and powers to local councils. A further such area may also be much greater use of local government pension funds as they disinvest from fossil fuels and seek greener returns on investments. In some scenarios there may be no alternative other than to rely on private finance. However, local councils need to be challenging ‘experts’ and asking some very tough questions about outcomes and motives including fairness and social justice. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of PFI and saddle ourselves with climate debts that ultimately may not deliver what is needed.

Paul O’Brien is Chief Executive and Mo Baines is Head of Communications and Coordination at the Association for Public Service Excellence. They attended COP26 on behalf of APSE member councils   

Local Partnerships and The MJ are holding a series of podcasts on what COP26 means for local government throughout the Glasgow event. You can find COP26CAST online at https://localpartnerships.org.uk/our-resources/ or https://www.themj.co.uk/podcasts

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