Good climate governance will net best results

Annie Pickering looks at the results of the first-ever UK-wide assessment of councils’ net zero progress, and warns that rather than spending money rectifying past decisions, councils need to better examine the climate impact of current decisions.

Last month, we at Climate Emergency UK published the results of our Council Climate Action Scorecards, the first-ever UK-wide assessment of all local authorities' progress towards net zero.

We know the commitment of the sector to reach net zero but, despite national barriers, councils can do more to reduce emissions. The scorecards, covering up to 91 questions across seven sections, showcase sector best practice and highlight action councils have taken – which can help councils learn from each other in implementing climate action. 

While the results vary, only 41 UK councils scored 50% or more for their climate action and governance and finance was one of two sections, including transport, where no council scored more than 80%. 

This section is arguably the most important because it looks at how climate action has been incorporated and embedded across the whole of the council, in its decision making, forward planning and structures. It also covers the crucial question of how councils can finance the necessary climate action. If a council has truly embedded climate action within their work, they are more likely to score well in other sections. Notably, 18 of the 20 highest scoring councils in the governance and finance section score 44% or higher for their total score, well above the UK average total score of 32%. 

Bristol City Council was the highest scoring council overall for Governance and Finance on 72%, while five other single tier authorities scored less than zero in this section, due to penalty marks for their direct investments in airports. For district councils, 62 scored less than 20%. While some councils score well, the scorecards show there is a long way to go for all councils to embed climate action holistically across their work. Crucially, councils have the power to make these changes about how they work. 

Our questions focus on actions that councils have the powers to implement but there is a key difference between the four UK nations, which impacts the climate governance of local authorities. English and Northern Irish local authorities do not have a statutory duty to work towards net zero. In Scotland, councils are required to help meet the Scottish 2045 net zero target and are mandated to report on their emissions and actions, and there is a public sector net zero target for Welsh councils to meet, alongside the Future Generations Act. The lack of a statutory duty doesn't stop councils placing the climate emergency at the heart of their work, but it doesn't encourage it either. Therefore in much of the UK, embedding good climate governance is left to a councils' own motivation.

Using a detailed assessment tool to consider the climate implications of all council decisions is one aspect of good climate governance. While 180 councils include climate implications as a criteria on council decision papers, 29 councils use a more detailed assessment, such as Bristol, who have a detailed eco-impact checklist accompanying all council decisions. 

Good climate governance requires motivation and ambition and is not limited to securing funding. Councils should properly recognise the risks climate change poses for their local area in their strategic risk register and embed the climate emergency and their net zero target in their mid-term financial plans and corporate plan. Currently, only 44% of UK councils place their net-zero target date in their corporate plan.

There must be strong political leadership to embed climate action across a council. However, we found 64 councils or combined authorities such as Darlington, Dundee and Thanet do not have a named climate lead (either cabinet member or committee chair). Without this, the oversight and implementation of a councils' climate action plan can slip and become lost across multiple departments and committees, rather than ensuring it is a councils' key priority, across all departments. 

While good climate governance might be inexpensive, councils do need funding to deliver net zero. Fortunately, there are ways in which councils can raise funds for climate action, through property development (section 106 or the Community Infrastructure Levy), Climate Bonds (such as Blaenau Gwent or Warrington councils have done) or successful Government grant funding. By ensuring councils are raising funds explicitly for climate action they can use these funds for other actions scored in other scorecard sections. 

It's not just about raising funds, it's also about choosing what to do with their public money. One in seven councils invest directly in fossil fuel infrastructure, such as airports. In addition, 99% of councils indirectly invest their public pension funds in fossil fuel companies. Removing financial ties and support for the aviation and fossil fuel industry is a powerful action councils can take to combat emissions in their area and globally. 

With council budgets cut year on year at the same time as concern for the climate is rising among residents, it is vitally important councils improve their governance in order to adapt to the climate and ecological crises we are facing. 
Going forwards, if a council accurately takes into account the climate impact of their decisions and actions, councils can spend their limited resources on creating and building a low carbon community, rather than constantly rectifying past decisions such as road and airport financing which are not compatible with net zero.

Single tier councils scoring less than zero in Governance and Finance

  • Tameside MBC
  • Stockton-on-Tees BC
  • Redcar and Cleveland Council
  • North Lincolnshire Council
  • Walsall MBC

Annie Pickering is co-director at Climate Emergency UK

X – @ClimateEmergUK



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