Local government can rise to the climate change challenge
30 November, 2007

Owen Dallison, Researcher
Public Sector Executive

Central government is going to miss the 2010 20% carbon reduction target with it expected to be nearer 16%. Central government’s self imposed 60% carbon reduction target for 2050 may have to increase to 80% if it is to make a difference. Gordon Brown has asked the climate change commission to advise on the issue. Cabinet Ministers and business advisors have warned Gordon Brown that he may need to impose new carbon taxes if Britain is to meet the possible 80% carbon reduction target by 2050.

Taxes, engaged business and central government actions will be important in meeting any target, but the step change in reductions required will need a strong local government to lead citizens and localities.

Councils across the UK have already taken action to reduce the environmental footprints of their areas. Councils use their unique range of tools to make reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But more can be done. Councils have the potential to wield their influence across the whole locality and make large reductions.

It is still not clear how the government will achieve its self imposed CO2 reduction targets, let alone an increased target. Citizens are demanding the state do better. But tackling climate change is not easy: it is a complex challenge. Emissions trading is often mooted as a solution and there is some evidence of its potential. Local government could also play a bigger role, but until now there has been a lack of certainty of what this role would be and how much could be achieved.

NLGN’s recent project, Carbon Footprints, Local Steps: How local government can rise to the climate change challenge, argued that local government should play a larger role in tackling the climate change challenge. The report showed that local government has the potential to meet the 60% carbon dioxide reduction target 25 years early by 2025.

Climate change is a challenge that will develop in the coming years. Accordingly the project sought to examine the role local government can play well into the future, rather than simply examine past experience. On this basis the project adopted an inter-authority carbon trading simulation where councils were set annual reduction targets. Council environmental officers were asked to produce new suggestions for reducing emissions while being responsible for trading credits over a simulated five year period. The suggestions were assessed by a panel of experts. The simulation tested the effect of targets, competition and financial incentives on performance.

Local government is uniquely placed to drive forward actions on tackling climate change. The local democratic mandate enables local government to take far reaching actions within their locality. Local government is better able to understand what approaches may and may not work in their area than central government.

The project showed three roles or categories of action: Estate Manager and Employer, Service provider, and Placeshaper. The Estate Manager and Employer category refers to action taken on assets and as a direct employer. The Service provider category includes actions taken through local government’s role as service provider. This could be through statutory or discretionary services. The placeshaper category includes actions designed to indirectly influence the behaviour of individuals, communities other parts of the local state and business.

The categorisation is revealing. 225 different actions were proposed. 50 were Estate Manager and Employer related 74 Service Provider and 101 Placeshaping. The average saving from Estate manager and employer actions was 5,432 tonnes. The average Service provider reduction was 23,345 tonnes. These two categories represent the more traditional roles of local authorities and produce impressive savings. However it is the placeshaping role that yielded the greatest reductions. The average reduction across the 101 different actions was 61,433 tonnes.

There is a clear need for local authorities to ‘look after their own house’ before encouraging behavioural changes from the wider population. Initially participant authorities concentrated on reducing the council’s footprint for quick wins. The greatest benefit of these actions was to show that the local council was taking a lead, even though they only represented 3% of the overall savings during the simulation. The service provider actions comprised 21% of overall savings but the placeshaping activities had greatest impact as they made up 76% of savings.

The projects analysis suggests that placeshaping actions become more prevalent as the challenge intensified. Estate management was 41% of first year savings but then quickly declined as Service provider actions and placeshaping roles dominated. Placeshaping is dependent on the moral authority gained through estate management reductions.

Placeshaping not only offers the greatest reductions but also offers value for money. The average cost per tonne of reduction was £34.57 when combining all actions. Every tonne of reduction brought about through Estate Management cost £56.19 and the cost was £44.92 for Service provider actions. This is in contrast to an average cost per tonne of £30.74 for placeshaping actions.

The project showed a strong correlation between performance, the use of placeshaping and political favourability. The years in the simulation with the best performance coincided with the greatest use of placeshaping and highest political favourability. It seems that the greater the impact on climate change and the more the council seeks to influence local people the more political capital there is to be gained.

Targets, competition and finance were critical in driving the performance of councils. Implementing an inter-authority carbon trading system would be hugely complex but the drivers can be replicated with a package of reforms. This package could include a portion of the CO2 reduction targets should be devolved by negotiation to local authorities and managed through the Local Area Agreements. A new performance grant could be attached to incentivise councils to exceed their targets. Local government could also report on progress to Parliament alongside Ministerial accountability for the work of central government.

Local authorities have the potential to deliver carbon reductions in excess of the 60% target for 2050. Their unique role means they can deliver large reductions at low costs and can profit politically by taking bold actions. The Government should realise the potential of local government to help it rise to the climate change challenge.