Not unsurprisingly headlines about the climate emergency have for now been replaced by COVID-19. Yet in comparison, coronavirus – whose sting will likely be drawn in 12 to 18 months – is temporary. If mankind does nothing, some fresh disaster will mean the climate emergency grabbing back the headlines for the worst possible reasons. We hope the lesson the world learns from COVID-19 is that when a serious threat has been sighted, early action to head it off saves both lives and money. As with coronavirus, so with climate change: early action matters massively.
As we explain in our new report So you’ve declared a climate emergency: what next?, the argument for early action is rooted directly in the science. The report which in effect launched the wave of climate emergency declarations across the UK, as elsewhere, was a report on global warming of 1.5°C, approved by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As that report made clear, stopping global warming is not just about bringing the growth of atmospheric carbon to a halt, that is, reaching net zero emissions, but bringing it to a halt at as low a cumulative level of emissions as possible.
This focus – on the stock of emissions in the atmosphere – has direct practical implications. One is that a cut today is better than the same cut tomorrow. A second is that a small cut today is worth as much as a large cut later. For local authorities who have declared an emergency but are still only starting out, that means the priority should be to begin cutting emissions as soon as possible, rather than worrying about how to eliminate them altogether.
Our report set out to explore how the councils who had declared a climate emergency intended to deliver on their ambitious aims. As of mid-March 282 councils had made some form of climate emergency declaration, but just 24 had set out an action plan, explaining how they intended to deliver on their promises. While the majority have pledged to reach net zero emissions, the deadline for achieving this varies widely between councils, with some suggesting they will reach their goal as soon as 2030, with others aligned to the UK-wide goal of 2050.
Whether explicit or not, any declaration of an emergency relies for its justification on that IPCC report. It is worth repeating some of the main conclusions. First, Earth has already experienced 1°C of warming compared with pre-industrial times. Second, 1.5°C will be worse and 2°C worse still, both for extreme weather, for many aspects of human wellbeing and for the natural world. Third, mankind is not helpless in the face of global warming. As things stand, warming is on track to reach 1.5°C sometime between 2030 and 2052. Yet halting net emissions would halt man-made global warming and, if we can do so quickly enough, we can still limit the rise.
Local councils are a critical part of action on climate change. While arguably councils are themselves relatively low contributors to greenhouse gases, the role of councils as the local hub, to enable and encourage change, is crucial.
One of the key findings of our report is that scope matters. Councils must be able to influence their wider local or sub-regional area. But that often starts by putting their own house in order first. While councils ‘own emissions’ ought to be relatively straightforward these will of course need to be balanced with the competing priorities of continuing to deliver frontline services. However, by reducing its own emissions, it is demonstrating political leadership through serious action on climate change.
It is also acting as a staging post, generating wider actions across partner organisations, helping to build momentum across the public sector, businesses and the wider community.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments has a list of ‘key near term actions’ which provides a strategic direction for local authorities’ action plans. These include already familiar actions by councils such as improving the energy efficiency of buildings, and switching to low carbon heating, while preparing the public for a move away from natural gas. Many have advanced plans to transition to electric vehicles, including EV charging networks, as well as low-carbon hydrogen and development of carbon capture and storage clusters by 2030.
On the environmental side of services, plans are developing at pace to avoid any biodegradable waste going to landfill by 2025. Alongside a huge expanse in tree planting, councils are developing and enhancing active travel, with walking and cycling routes, to minimise or replace vehicular access to shops and town centres.
While the CCC provides a coherent framework for local councils’ action on climate change, it is not sufficient on its own. Reducing emissions may be perceived to do very little for those who live or work in an area. From the outset, a council will want to identify wider, direct benefits, for example, in reduced fuel poverty or better air quality and health (mitigating actions) or to develop other actions directed at coping with the consequences of climate change, for example, reducing urban heat or the risk of flooding (adaptations). In the case of the CCC’s advice that net zero overall will require most sectors to reduce emissions close to zero without offsetting; those emissions that require offsetting will be the exception – not the rule.
All of this of course requires brave actions and proper resourcing. To go back to COVID-19, such is the immediate threat to human health it would be unthinkable for any government to deny the resources, and actions, needed to tackle the threat. Yet when it comes to an existential threat to the world as we know it, the issues have too often become mired in bureaucracy, and the seeking of both political consensus and public consent.
If there is one good lesson we can learn from COVID-19, it is that not all of our actions will be popular, but the public may now be ready to accept there is a necessity, for the greater good of the planet and the global community.
Paul O’Brien is chief executive of APSE and Dr Peter Kenway is director of NPI.
So you’ve declared a climate emergency: what next? can be downloaded for readers of The MJ from www.apse.org.uk