Real imagination needed for a green reset

By Heather Jameson | 14 July 2020

We may be in the midst of a health crisis but even before coronavirus hit we were in a climate change crisis that looks set to last until well after the pandemic passes.

But the social changes brought about by the pandemic are being pitched as a catalyst for change and environmentalists are increasingly calling for a reset when it comes to the way we deal with the green agenda.

Climate change expert and LGiU chief operating officer, Dr Andy Johnston, was guest speaker at a recent Penna/The MJ virtual seminar. He cites a long list of government initiatives that have been introduced when it comes to tackling the environment.

After the Carbon Reduction Commitment, then the Green Deal, Dr Johnston says: ‘This is a policy area that quite often starts and stops again. Partly because of political will and partly because it’s a complex area, it’s new and it’s outside the comfort zone of lots of people.’

But there was increasing momentum, with growing evidence of climate change before campaigner Greta Thunberg ‘caught the imagination’ of the public, sparking climate change protests and piquing the interest of policy-makers.

‘Theresa May’s Government came up with a net zero target and we had lots of local authorities declaring a climate emergencies and building targets around that,’ Dr Johnston says.

According to Association of Public Service Excellence figures, 70% of local authorities have made a declaration and 80% of those have made a ‘meaningful’ target, mostly net zero by 2030 – with some more or less ambitious.

‘Most of those net zero by 2030 local authorities are only talking about their own emissions,’ Dr Johnston states. ‘There are, however, some local authorities that are taking a place-based approach which, in comparison to just the local authority’s emissions, is hugely ambitious.’

Most councils are only accountable for 1-2% of the local emissions, so a place-based approach adds ‘significantly to the challenge you face’. But he adds: ‘This will have to happen at some point, so why not now?’

And then there is option of looking further down the carbon supply chain, which ramps up the ambition one step further ‘and will require a great deal of political will and resources’.

One of the first steps is data, Dr Johnston says. You have to be able to measure what you are doing. In the region of 20-30% of local authorities have started carbon budgeting, so ‘there is clearly a long way to go on that’.

There also needs to be a plan put in place, and a series of initiatives. Energy managers have been using Invest to Save, and in the last few years we have seen local authorities ‘dabble in energy companies’.

Whatever local authorities are doing to combat climate change, he says there needs to be a senior councillor or officer pushing it forward. But he warns: ‘The councillors that are most enthusiastic about the climate change agenda may not be the ones who are in the right position to drive it.’

Getting the right people on board is also true when it comes to engaging the community, Dr Johnston says: ‘It’s often quite easy to get the usual suspects to turn up and talk about climate change. The real challenge is getting the big emitters – the people who can make a difference in your local economy – actually engaged in the process.’

For best practice, he claims Ireland is well ahead of the UK. It has established four Climate Action Regional Offices to support the local authorities. They each have an area and a topic to focus on. Each local authority has a climate change plan. They try to pull together mitigation and adaptation, as well as biodiversity – knitting it all together.

While he admits there are lots of new policies and strategies coming up, including an environment bill and an agriculture bill going through Parliament and a new regulator to take over from the European Union when we Brexit, Dr Johnston says: ‘In terms of the green recovery, or the green reset, it’s hard to find anything particularly crunchy about what is really going on.’

There is the ‘nebulous idea’ about green jobs, and some political commitments from the major political parties. But he says: ‘Any sort of green recovery or reset will need some real imagination around how local authorities spend their budgets, invest their pensions, but also how they take advantage of new income streams coming through.’

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