The UK needs to unleash the awesome power of local government to tackle climate change

The UK has been a leader in making national and international environmental commitments, including the world’s first legally-binding carbon target back in 2008. An increasing number of countries are following the UK’s approach to national emissions reduction.

But seven years on from the Climate Change Act it is evident that Britain is lagging some way behind other parts of the world in giving local governments a mandate for action on climate change. This matters because globally cities account for more than half of the world’s population and three-quarters of its energy use. And in the UK these proportions are even higher.

Sustainability for success – local action around the globe

In an increasingly competitive global economy, sustainable cities are more likely to be successful cities. People want to live and work in cities where there is clean air, green space, low energy bills, efficient transportation systems, and jobs that will not be under threat in the transition to a low carbon economy. These factors are already helping cities like Barcelona, Copenhagen and Vancouver to gain competitive advantage, attracting the investment and talent that is helping to boost their economies.

International experience shows us that cities and regions can act as highly effective climate planners when two key factors are in place:

  • There needs to be effective devolution of powers and influence to local governments, so that they can shape the structure and economy of their cities and regions;
  • And a transparent, clear long term incentive structure needs to be put in place through which international carbon reduction targets are cascaded down from national governments to city governments.

Many countries are now putting these structures into place. To give just a few examples:

  • Japan, passed a Low Carbon City Act in 2012 ensuring that every major city has a green growth plan;
  • Malaysia encourages cities to follow a Low Carbon Cities Framework to report and reduce emissions;
  • In South Korea cities have to produce plans to show how they will promote green growth and contribute to cutting carbon emissions by 30% by 2020;
  • And a lot is happening in China - a $1.7bn fund has been set up to help cities reduce fossil fuel use, low carbon city initiatives have been set up in collaboration with Germany and the USA, and the government is running a pilot low carbon provinces programme.

Dedicated global initiatives are also providing cities with the tools they need to make progress. Measuring and comparing city emissions is becoming easier thanks to initiatives such as the GHG Protocol for Cities. There are now a wide range of collaborations and coalitions to share knowhow and lessons learned across borders, such as ICLEI, the Carbon Trust’s Low Carbon Cities Programme, the Compact of Mayors and C40 Cities.

And there is also a global focus on building skills in cities. For example, at the Carbon Trust we are working with the World Bank on a new qualification for city climate planners, covering the skills needed to create low carbon cities. These range from city carbon accounting and low carbon technologies, through to ensuring infrastructure is resilient to the physical risks of climate change, such as extreme heat or flooding.

Can tackling climate change make British cities better places?

Back in Britain there is some progress being made. Cities are starting to be given the powers they need to transform our urban landscapes into sustainable and prosperous places to live, for example through the new City Deals. In addition, the DECC Heat Network Delivery Unit has really helped to kick off activity on low carbon, low cost district heating schemes. The Carbon Trust is now working on a dozen of these schemes around the UK.

However, the UK has yet to set specific climate goals for municipalities, which is a huge missed opportunity. Indeed, we are moving backwards - in 2011 the UK government scrapped National Indicator 186, which had previously required local government to report emissions arising within their administrative boundaries. Since then there has been no formal initiative for reporting emissions on a local level in the UK, even as global initiatives of this nature multiply.

In the absence of clear direction from national government, some local governments have recognised the value in taking action and seized the initiative. Cities such as Bristol, Leeds and London have worked with the Carbon Trust and others to develop city climate strategies, and are now among the world’s leading sustainable cities.

However, most UK cities could do much more to cut carbon and drive efficiency using the levers at their disposal. Their roles as service providers, planners, regulators and landlords gives them the direct opportunity to drive change. And they can also have a strong influence through engaging community leaders, schools and local employers. But many local governments still need more incentives to act from central government.

Our experience at the Carbon Trust of taking cities around the world through our Low Carbon Cities programme – from Petaling Jaya in Malaysia to Guadalajara in Mexico – shows the very real benefits that a focus on reducing emissions can bring. It results in a lower cost base, better use of land, improved connectivity, and a greater resilience to the financial and human risks from extreme weather.

It also shows that similar approaches are readily transferrable in any city, because greater efficiency is a universal benefit. For example, Oxford City Council managed to save over 25% on its energy and utility bills by investing in building retrofit, transport and lighting. And Bristol now has the highest employment rate of all the core UK cities and has been recognised as the 2015 European Green Capital.

Success will require clear leadership from city governments, but they need the mandate to take action and the data to make decisions. Devolving some responsibility from the UK’s excellent national framework on climate change to local governments would help to galvanise real action. Requiring city-scale carbon emissions reporting and devolving more decision-making on a local level will help to unlock the opportunity.

What I am suggesting may sound like the wide-eyed optimism of a naïve idealist. But the UK government has a golden opportunity to unleash the awesome power of local government to help tackle climate change. And the evidence from around the world suggests that it will result in cleaner, more competitive cities that are better places to live and work. Very serious consideration should be given to as to how this can be achieved.