Keeping councils at the heart of carbon reduction

The public sector has long been leading the pack when it comes to cutting energy costs and carbon emissions. One of the major drivers put in place by government to encourage local action was a framework of national indicators, which required local authorities to take responsibility for cutting carbon from their own estate. Councils were tasked with reducing per capita CO2 in their areas, reducing fuel poverty and even adapting to climate change.

Recent legislation changes have seen this framework scrapped, replaced instead by a voluntary memorandum of understanding between government and the Local Government Association, and a revision of the Nottingham declaration known as climate local.

This change in the regulatory environment has happened in parallel with funding cuts for local authorities, meaning that the business case for carbon reduction has to shout louder to be heard.

Despite these changes, the need to take action remains very strong. The financial opportunity for councils is particularly compelling - rising energy prices mean that the potential savings get larger every year. These savings alone should make public sector finance directors sit up and listen.

Since 2001, the Carbon Trust has worked with more than 3,000 public sector bodies, providing them with advice and carbon management services. As a result, these organisations have reported actual savings to date of £640m, with potential future savings of £2.6bn. Energy costs are being cut, liberating resources for frontline services.

The wider impact on local areas and the economy should not be overlooked. The Committee on Climate Change recently highlighted the critical role that local authorities have in cutting emissions because of their influence over local buildings, surface transport and waste (which together account for 40% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions).

Emissions from these sectors can be cut by 20% by 2020, compared to 2010 levels, and 30% compared to 1990 - but only if local authorities develop serious, workable, low-carbon plans.

There are indications that cutting carbon is slipping down the agenda. The Department for Energy and Climate Change released statistics last week showing that 97% of local authorities reported a rise in greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, compared with 2009, and while this may be related to the weather (2010 was colder than 2009 in the UK), it does highlight the need for action.

However, a few local authorities are taking their ambition even further. In 2009, Durham county council set a target of cutting emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2020, but have since upped that goal to 47%. This is equivalent to taking almost 300,000 cars off the road, or putting cavity and loft insulation in more than 750,000 homes.

Through their building and transport planning responsibilities, local authorities have an exciting opportunity to lead on the development of healthier, more efficient urban systems. They can pioneer the production of low-carbon, local energy with district heating, waste to energy, combined heat and power, and renewables.

Through their school and housing stewardship responsibilities, they can catalyse the development of better learning and living environments, lower fuel poverty, and more sustainable schools. And through their own action, they can demonstrate the reality of a low carbon economy, as well as tangible cost savings, to local businesses and households.

For further information, see the Public Sector Network - an online discussion forum on low carbon issues exclusively for public sector bodies.  

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