Council action on the climate emergency

Posted on 12/11/2021 by Ed Hammond.

We’ve produced material on the climate emergency before – we published a blog on how scrutiny could approach the issue in 2019, and in July last year we published a longer guide setting out 10 questions to ask if you’re scrutinising your council’s action on the issue.

With COP26 drawing to a close in Glasgow this week however we thought it was sensible to revisit the matter, and to think further about what scrutiny can do to play an active part.

Since we first published on this issue more councils have declared “climate emergencies”, but these declarations have often not been accompanied by real action. Many councils have also not consistently integrated an understanding of the climate emergency into their planning across all services. Impacts across all services will, though, begin to be felt in the coming years – and councils need to prepare for them.

But this is to get ahead of ourselves. Action can take many forms – action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and actions to adapt to its impacts. Mitigation actions could be about mitigating at home – reducing energy use, for example, will reduce emissions – as well as mitigating globally – through divestment from fossil fuel and other unsustainable investments.

More attention is however turning to adaptation – how the worst effects of the climate emergency, when they come, can be minimised. With the ongoing debate over whether the rise in global temperature can be kept under 2 degrees, this is perhaps where most attention is now focusing. Here, there are all sorts of actions – retrofitting housing for better heating and cooling, taking action on the risks from flooding and other extreme weather events, making plans for a different approach to economic development should global supply chains not prove resilience to the expected disruption (as we have seen in practice in recent months).

The range of actions available presents an opportunity for local government, but also a risk. The risk is that councils embark on a scattergun range of measure, focusing perhaps on those easiest to deliver, while more strategic steps to transform the way that public bodies do business, and transforming the local area more generally, are left unaddressed.

Scrutiny can do a lot to help councils to clarify exactly what outcomes it wants to achieve and to prioritise. It can probe on whether a real and meaningful understanding of the impacts of climate change are fundamental to how the council does business. It can also question the extent to which the council is exercising local leadership on this issue – amongst its partners, as well as amongst the wider community.

With a lot of pressing calls on council time, we think that – from a scrutiny perspective – post-pandemic recovery and the impact of the climate emergency go hand in hand. Both are pressing issues requiring urgent decisions, which will have a sustained and long term impact. Both are wide-ranging, and require buy-in from a wide range of people. Both, too, can easily be elided and minimised by councils unprepared to face up to the challenge. Part of scrutiny’s job is to make sure that these critical issues – and those like them – are exposed to public debate through scrutiny, and that the space and opportunity exists for politicians to take through, agree and deliver bold actions against which they can be held accountable.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.