Cllr Kevin Frea, deputy leader of Lancaster City Council and founder of Climate Emergency UK, explains why the solution to our climate and biodiversity crises lies in local action, with councils, business and communities coming together to fill the void left by central government.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown the strength of local government. While confidence in national government is falling, the status of local government and politicians is on the rise. Andy Burnham is not the only local hero, in my authority, Lancaster City Council, we are constantly being thanked for how we have responded to the pandemic, supporting businesses and vulnerable people including those in food poverty. Local government with local knowledge has been more effective than central government in many areas, including Test and Trace.
But the pandemic has taken attention away from an even more serious emergency. We are trashing the planet which is our home and that has consequences. As many scientists have pointed out there is a relationship between our destruction of the natural world and the increase in pandemics. In the long term the climate and ecological emergency will kill many more people, cost much more money and destroy many more livelihoods that coronavirus and yet we are paying it little attention.
That is why I set up Climate Emergency UK two years ago, to track the local authorities who are declaring climate and ecological emergencies, and to support them to produce effective actions plans to deliver on these ambitions.
And that is why on 13 November, the anniversary of the first Climate Emergency declaration by a UK local authority, we are hosting the second Lancaster Conference on the Climate and Ecological Emergency. We are bringing together councils, business, experts, activists, NGOs and local people from across the UK and across the political spectrum, to focus on turning climate policy into effective action.
The good news is that in Britain we don’t have same level of climate denial as in the USA and it is not an overtly a political issue. The bad news is that none of the major political parties have a radical enough plan to reduce emissions and protect biodiversity at the speed needed. While we have some of best climate legislation in the world, in practice successive Governments have failed to take the action needed, often ignoring the advice of the government-appointed Commission on Climate Change.
While central Government refuses to take the action even its advisers say is necessary, local Government is stepping into the void. In the last two years, three quarters of councils of all political persuasions have declared climate (and sometimes ecological) emergencies. This is not a party-political issue. In my council, like many others, the declaration was passed unanimously.
Almost 40 conservative controlled councils around the country have set a carbon neutral target of 2030 (as the science says we must do), 20 years earlier than the government’s own target. Conservative-run Wandsworth Borough Council in London aims to be the greenest council in London. The council leader, Cllr Ravi Govindia, says the Climate Emergency commitment is the most important act of his political career.
‘The threat of climate change to our environment is one that none of us can take lightly,’ he said. ‘It is a threat to our way of life for us and future generations. Councils therefore must join the fight to address the drivers of climate change. We need to do our bit to stop the huge impacts on our environment and begin the process of reversing the damage. This is something I feel passionate about.’
At a local level, councils are doing their best with ever less money and less staff time as resources are diverted to responding to the pandemic, and a centralising government weakens the powers we do have, in relation to planning in particular.
So this conference is an attempt to refocus and reinvigorate, to get the climate emergency movement back on track, to celebrate the successes and action that is taking place – on homes, transport, energy, food, biodiversity etc – and to inspire others to step up and re-engage.
What is very clear is that councils don’t have the finances, the staff or the legislative powers to take effective action on their own: they have to involve their local community. A council might be able to get their own emissions to net zero by 2030, but that will only cut an area’s emissions by between 0.5 and 3%. They have to use all of their influence and leadership to inspire, influence and educate local people and organisations to take action.
Among our residents there are plenty of people with the skills and expertise who are only too willing to volunteer time: there are businesses and other institutions, like universities, voluntary organisations and faith groups, that can help. Opinion polls have consistently shown there is an appetite amongst the public for addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.
So the main focus of the conference is on how councils can tap into this local resource and how local communities can support their council. Most people know very little about what their council does and what their council is capable of doing, and most councils haven’t got a history of engaging with their communities: this is a chance to get together and learn from each other.
We have great sessions for people to find out more about how councils operate and how to constructively engage with them. For councils it’s an opportunity to open their eyes to just what resources are available to support them in meeting their ambitious targets. We have people talking about how they engage their local communities, including new approaches like citizens juries, and universities showcasing their practical work on projects covering natural flood management, urban food growing and where best to site a solar park to improve biodiversity.
What we’re finding from our Lancaster citizens’ jury is that our randomly selected representative selection of residents are very, very motivated: we have had almost 100% attendance even when it had to go online. People are interested in learning more and are turning out to be passionate about more radical action being taken. Leeds citizens jury, for instance, came out strongly against any expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport.
As the pandemic has shown us, local councils are the closest rung of Government to their communities with the knowledge and expertise needed to act effectively. At a time when governments worldwide are becoming more autocratic, it’s time for our councils and communities to come together to take back control and deliver meaningful action on climate which works for their locality.
Photo Credit – Free-Photos (Pixabay)