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Climate action: Give us the tools so we can get the job done

Cllr Dr Pete Sudbury says councils are the best bodies for delivering local climate action. He calls on the next government to empower them to get on with the task.

Earlier this year, two esteemed academics addressed Oxfordshire County Council to talk about the climate crisis.

They didn't pull their punches.

Professor Hugh Montgomery and Professor Sir Andrew Haines warned us that we are trapping the same amount of energy as eight Hiroshima bombs into our atmosphere every second, essentially cooking the planet.

Rising temperatures are making a mockery of the Paris climate agreement reached in 2015 to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C and are having a catastrophic impact on our world's climate. Ice stocks are melting, sea levels are rising, extreme weather events attributable to climate change are up 83%, while floods have doubled in the last 20 years.

We were given a stark warning about the impact on human survival, with devastating effects on global agriculture and geopolitical upheaval. And things are only going to get worse.

We've ignored warnings for 50 years and now we face a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable future for our own and future generations. And despite the UK being a leader early on, we have now slipped back and are no longer decarbonising at the necessary rate and speed.

Prof Montgomery had little faith that state actors are going to solve this problem, but he did have a message of hope.

He said he has enormous faith in councils because we are able to take action locally in a way that can make an enormous difference and act as a beacon for national policy as well.

He's absolutely right. And he's not the only one with this view.

A recent Local Government Association (LGA) survey which found that just five per cent of the public feel prepared for the impacts of climate change also revealed people trust their council the most to lead efforts to prepare communities for instances of excess heat, flooding and storms.

Evidence suggests that net zero projects delivered locally can produce four times the benefits for half the cost.

At Oxfordshire CC we have been leading the way. Climate action extends across the whole council, not just the climate team. We are cutting our own emissions, helping to create a zero carbon county, and building our resilience against extreme weather events.

We were named the best performing county council in the UK for tackling climate change by Climate Emergency UK in 2023. But rather than resting on our laurels, we immediately set up workshops to see how we could do even better in 2024.

We act as a leader and are working with others to build the pace and scale required to end pollution and eliminate waste?; bring in investment and lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution?; restore and enhance the natural world? and get on the front foot with emerging existential threats to our health, wealth and wellbeing.

The cross-party parliamentary Public Accounts Committee recently warned that long-term plans to respond to floods, storms and heatwaves are needed, as the UK is badly under-prepared. It said extreme weather was on the rise due to climate change and said urgent action was needed to ensure medium and long-term planning and investment in infrastructure, to improve resilience to such risks.

We took those warnings seriously and have been working hard to prepare for dangerously adverse weather. Climate change is a global problem, but we are acutely aware that it's also a deeply local issue.

In Oxfordshire we have seen excess deaths due to record temperatures in 2022 and what seemed like a never-ending cycle of flooding this winter.

That's why we need a statutory role for councils to be the lead local climate authority and give us a clearer role – and funding – across the spectrum of climate action.

That requires us to move away from the current fragmented approach to funding. We need longer term and devolved funding from the government and move away from the current approach. Since 2022, our own climate programme has been financed by more than 30 separate sources of funding.

This staccato, short-term and often competitive approach breeds uncertainty and is ineffective when it comes to tackling systems challenges. We need to bridge the gap between strategy and investment-ready projects.

We support the LGA's call for the Government to empower local climate action that can hit targets, mobilise support, and save taxpayers hundreds of billions.

Senior figures at Oxfordshire CC recently met with the man who signed the UK's commitment to Net Zero into law in 2019 to talk about how to take the county's climate programme to the next level.

Former Energy and Clean Growth Minister Chris Skidmore, who resigned as a Conservative MP in February over his government's approval of new fossil fuel extraction, remains an influential figure and consensus builder, heading the Independent Review of Net Zero, and is a founder of Mission Zero.

He acknowledged that some of the frameworks that we're taking forward could be genuine national examples of best practice and we explored calls to ‘supercharge' local authorities' role in climate action, by giving us a clearer position and longer term, devolved funding.

My message to the next government is to give local councils the money and the tools for climate action so we can get the job done.

Cllr Dr Pete Sudbury is deputy leader of Oxfordshire CC with responsibility for climate change, environment and future generations

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