LGA Annual Conference 2021: Green light services to address our planetary emergency

The climate change plenary session on green light services to address our planetary emergency took place on Wednesday 7 July 2021. The session featured speakers from local, national and international organisations discussing the importance of local government in the fight against climate change and their role at COP26. It was considered the start of a longer conversation about the role of local government in tackling climate change.

COP26 logo on net zero branded background

The UK will host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. It will be a critical event for international efforts to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Many individuals and organisations will be involved in making this summit a success. Local government has and will play a key role. This session focused on inspiring the step change needed to meet the goal of decarbonisation by 2050 and the critical role that councils play in local leadership. A panel of four speakers offered international, national and local perspectives on climate action.

313 people attended the event and this overview provides a summary of each speaker’s points.

The session was chaired by Cllr Liz Green, Vice-Chair of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board. She was joined by Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s COP26 Spokesperson, Niclas Svenningsen, Manager, Global Climate Action, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Cllr Izzi Seccombe OBE, Co-Chair, LGA Climate Change Task Group, Leader, LGA Conservative Group and Leader, Warwickshire County Council, and Cllr Nick Forbes CBE, Co-Chair, LGA Climate Change Task Group, Leader LGA Labour Group and Leader, Newcastle City Council

Allegra Stratton, began the session by giving us a quick run through of the COP26 goals.

Allegra explained that this year, COP26 has four goals. The first goal is mitigation. In terms of mitigation, COP26 will specifically be focusing on the net zero by 2050 target, meaning that by 2050, the country should not produce more carbon than we are also removing. Allegra clarified that if we are going to bring about the reduction in carbon emissions needed to halt climate change, we need to be taking the steps now, and many people in this area are calling this the "decisive decade".

At a local level, the targets set by councils will be critical to the overall goal of mitigation and the national net zero target of 2050. There are also other themes covered here including the pressures on coal financing and coal use for domestic power. This has been a massive British success story. In 2012, 40% of our energy came from coal. This is now at just 1.5% and that is why the Government felt able to bring forward the complete phasing out of coal to 2024. Over the next few months, the Government will be focusing more on deforestation and tree planting as another way to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, covered under the mitigation goal.

The next goal is adaptation and, in many ways, the most vivid of the four as it focuses on how countries protect their populations from climate change and extreme weather events. This can cover a variety of different schemes such as drought resistant crops, measures to deal with storms, and in essence is about helping vulnerable nations deal with the effects of climate change.

Related to this is the third goal, finance. The G7 summit saw some progress in the area of international climate finance, helping vulnerable nations to pay for the transition to different types of technology to help them with climate change. There is a huge amount of activity going on behind the scenes right now to ensure we fulfil that pledge.

Lastly, working together in collaboration is a goal for COP26 and this is where local government can, and is needed, to play a considerable part. Activity from cities around the world created some of the momentum ensuring that the Paris Agreement came to be. The Paris Agreement when signed, understood and acknowledged that local and regional government will play a huge role in this journey to net zero.

Today (July 7 2021), the Presidency Programme was published showing that there will be one day set aside by the presidency for cities and local government at COP26. This gives local government the chance and explicit role to talk about some of the ways in which we are best placed to be reducing carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner. This is because the position of councils as place-shapers of housing and transport, convenors of communities and businesses and delivery agents of vital public services puts them at the forefront of delivering real, tangible changes on the ground, and in some ways, much more than Central Government.

With the UK hosting COP26, it is an enormously important year which will set the tone for years ahead.

Following Allegra Stratton, the chair, Cllr Liz Green, welcomed Niclas Svenningsen, who started by sharing a graph of warming stripes, showing how the annual temperature in the UK has changed between the late 1800’s to the present day. What could be seen was a very clear trend exemplifying that we are changing our planet in a unique way. We are likely the only species on this planet able to make such changes, and unfortunately, we are not changing it positively.

Niclas has experienced first-hand the importance of cities and local municipalities in the fight against climate change. In the last 30 years, we have had a convention, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, trying to get parties, countries and governments around the world to work together. In the last 5 years we have had a global blueprint that we call the Paris Agreement. It is an agreement where our 197 national governments agree to work together in different ways to keep the global warming between 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, with an ambition to keep it below 1.5 degrees. Now today, that target is slipping out of our hands.

We have a very short time left to reach this target but luckily, we now do understand the science, we understand the consequences, and our focus is on action to prevent further climate change. If we want to solve this, governments are essential, but we need to have all hands-on deck and all parts of society working together, including the private sector, cities, local governments, municipal authorities, and individual citizens as everything we do has climate footprints.

When we are thinking about addressing climate change, it is not about tweaking a small button here or there but it is really about redesigning society. It may sound scary but actually it is quite positive because climate action goes hand in hand with sustainable development and Niclas believes that is something we all want: we are talking about health, education, access to healthy food, saving cultural monuments and oceans, and so on. Local authorities have had a strong voice in influencing, inspiring and driving momentum in the work of the UNFCCC.

The Global Climate Action agenda includes many different areas. For example, we are developing 7 thematic road maps for climate action. One where people say it is about local municipalities and cities, (called human settlements), another on transport, on energy, on industry, and all of those are also inspirations from local authorities to our parties.

The race to zero initiative is encouraging everybody - companies, organisations, cities, countries even, to make a commitment to net zero by 2050. As Allegra also mentioned, by 2050 we need a world where we are not emitting more greenhouse gases than what we can absorb. Today, we are seeing some effects of climate change, so we need to adapt and build resilience against climate change at the local level. Several cities have already signed up to the race to zero campaign and in doing so are not only committing to be net zero by 2050 but also to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. Niclas believes we have always been consistent in saying that Governments alone cannot address climate change. Business investors, regions and cities all must do their part to significantly reduce emissions, and we are looking to local government to take action and show leadership - now is the right time to step up.

It is also important to realise that sustainable products and responsible leadership, are not blips or fads, not something that is going away. It is a new reality. It is something that is going to be good for all of us. While this isn’t going to be easy, it is absolutely necessary to achieve these changes. It is necessary for the future of our community and we just don't have the choice. The most difficult part of this is not technology or the economy, it is about the ability to think beyond our self, beyond here and now to future generations, and to think about people around the world. Whatever you do in the UK will impact the rest of the world in the same way the rest of the world will impact the UK.

Next Cllr Green turned to Cllr Izzi Seccombe OBE to talk about climate action locally. Highlighting the importance of sharing best practice, Cllr Seccombe gave some insight into the work and projects taking place in her own council, Warwickshire.

In July 2019 the Council declared a climate emergency and agreed to set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030. To do this, the Council has engaged with both local and business communities, helping them on the journey to becoming net zero by 2050 or sooner.

The Council has worked on the following:

  • installing solar panels on their own estate
  • helping residents to do a switch and save programme so that they can get more connected with green energy potentials
  • creating a car park for staff and members with electric cars and hybrid cars to allow them the experience of trying one out, and so that they feel confident about driving one
  • reducing and changing street-lights to LED, with now 90% of street-lights LED.
  • introduced a biodiversity net gain ambition where off sets enhance development so they can gain the biodiversity which is rapidly being lost
  • green shoots fund where community groups could bid for part of a £1 million fund, getting community groups engaged and thinking themselves about what they could contribute towards climate change reduction in their area.

For Cllr Seccombe, one thing is evident: nothing can happen without local government..

Cllr Nick Forbes began his section highlighting the different challenges facing different areas in the UK. While in Warwickshire, a primarily rural area, biodiversity is a key concern, in Newcastle, the city’s prosperity was built on coal. Therefore, Cllr Forbes feels there is a particular moral responsibility to help to decarbonise not just our national economy but global economy too. For politicians, this needs to be embedded in everything they do, in everything they achieve, and in everything they try to change in our respective towns and cities.

Newcastle has declared a climate emergency and has created a net zero taskforce, bringing the major organisations in the city around a plan to look at our net zero commitments, and to capitalise on the intellectual research going on. Newcastle have run a Citizens’ Assembly to engage residents and to find out what has resonated with our citizens when it comes to thinking about climate change.

One of the really important points for Cllr Forbes is to develop an evidence base based on real work and the interventions which are impactful in the shortest period of time for the resources available. Many people are passionate about climate change, but often have their own idea about the single thing that could fix the challenge if scaled up. Unfortunately, it is not like that. It is not an either or, it is a both, and we all have the responsibilities to think about what we do as individuals, households, communities, as towns and as cities around this agenda.

Many places around the country, demonstrated the political bravery needed to get past the symbolism of what needs to be done, into hard yards of actually changing things on the ground. We can help identify new ways of accessing finance and help to join up government policy. We can also help businesses adapt and change too, particularly the smaller businesses that are out of the loop when it comes to wider networks of support and those furthest away from the agency.

Cllr Forbes sees our challenge on climate change much like the space race. It is about an end point vision that spurs innovation and creativity and the design of a whole new generation of products, services and ways of doing things that will get us to that goal. That is what local government brings to the table and he thinks that we can showcase a lot more of this at COP26, but we should see COP26 as the start of a longer conversation about the role of local government, not the end point of it.