COP26 – Five takeaways for local government
As the curtain came down on COP26, the headlines were grabbed by the agreement made between national governments, controversy over last-minute watering down of the text and debate over whether the event has done enough. With the diplomats and dignitaries leaving Glasgow, there is now time to reflect on the practical implications of the summit for local government. We have picked out five core themes that councils need to be aware of in the coming months and years.
COP26 has put climate change permanently on the agenda
The presence of COP26 in the United Kingdom undoubtedly raised its profile for residents of this country, but the end of the event does not mean that the spotlight has moved on. Awareness of climate change issues among the British public has never been greater and councils will be expected, not only to have a view on them, but also to take positive action.
In addition, the real-world impacts of climate changes will increasingly be felt locally, with scientists forecasting an increase in extreme weather events – even in temperate climates such as the UK. Councils need to identify where their areas could be at risk from these events, prepare their responses and encourage behaviours from individuals and businesses that will mitigate their effects.
Councils will need to take a principled stand
The COP26 agreement "Urges Parties to further integrate adaptation into local, national and regional planning". Local government will have a significant role in delivering on the commitments made in Westminster, but they will not all be popular. Policies and decisions that encourage eco-friendly land use such as the approval of solar farms and wind turbines, promotion of cycle lanes and funding of sustainable land uses will face opposition. Officers and Councillors will need to be well-briefed on the importance and impact of measures like these so that the local benefits can be clearly communicated.
Innovation and new approaches will be needed
The budget constraints that local authorities have faced for over a decade show no signs of going away. There is a risk that action on climate change will be seen as an additional burden on an already under-funded sector. Councils have faced austerity with unrivalled innovation and energy, and they will need to draw on the same spirit to address environmental issues.
We have seen Councils overcome the hurdles that austerity has put in its way and push forward with a range of renewable energy projects including solar, wind and biomass and associated storage initiatives. Councils have also been forward-thinking in adapting more day-to-day projects to address climate objectives – for example folding insulation and air source heat pumps into planned refurbishment programmes for council housing. We foresee local authorities becoming the breeding ground for new technologies and new approaches in addressing climate change.
Leverage as well as action
Addressing the climate crisis will take much more than the actions of Councils themselves. Local authorities are uniquely placed to encourage the behaviour-change in businesses and individuals that is needed. Planning authorities are, and must carry on, reviewing policies to encourage sustainable development and energy efficiency in the construction sector.
More broadly, councils can incorporate social value requirements into their procurement and contractual documentation to achieve social value and environmental sustainability objectives via tender processes. Councils must find innovative ways of spending public money in a way that influences the behaviour of their contractors, without compromising quality and safety of service delivery.
Impact for generations to come
Tackling climate change is going to take sustained effort from communities around the world across multiple decades. The children and young people of today will be tomorrow's leaders, developing new solutions and managing future adverse climate events. Councils have a role to play in funding and enabling climate change education programmes to equip future generations with knowledge and behaviours needed to deliver an equitable and permanent resolution to the situation. Polls also show that climate change is a much more important issue for young and future voters, meaning that on-going political relevance will depend on active engagement with climate matters.
COP26 has reinforced the message that climate change presents a significant financial and societal challenge. Councils' role at the heart of local communities makes them the driving force for making positive changes that enhance people's day to day lives. Championing the benefits of sustainability – such as clean air, warm homes, lower fuel bills and high-tech jobs – will bring such enhancements; and is what local government is all about.