Ambition to action – could 2021 be a turning point for climate change and localism?

The lead clean growth researcher at Localis, Grace Newcombe, writes on why 2021 could be the ‘environmental super year’ that campaigners have longed for.  

Initially forecast to be a green super year, and despite Boris’ pledge for a defining year of climate action’, 2020 did not go as anticipated.  

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns caused rapid change and severe disruption, dashing environmental hopes for the year, namely in the postponement of the Glasgow climate summit (COP26).

With government focus rightly directed at controlling the virus, by the end of 2020 there were sizable shortfalls in the government spending and policy needed to reach the UK’s own stated legally binding emissions reductions targets – including the 2050 net zero target.

While last year’s policy announcements promised new funding for decarbonisation and a reduction of CO2 emissions, only 16% of the total emissions reductions needed to reach net zero during the fifth carbon budget would be realised. This leaves a formidable amount of emissions to be cut, requiring £22bn in additional annual spending. 

With the pandemic still raging, 2021 will be a pivotal opportunity for creating a sustainable low-carbon future. Politically we have recently seen more intrepid climate commitments from the UK, the EU and the incoming American president Joe Biden. On the business side, renewable energy investment will exceed that in fossil fuels for the first time ever.

With innovation, there is a continuing explosion of climate change solutions coming to the fore. The timing couldn’t be better, as the UK is hosting its biggest event, the global COP26, in November. 

The significance of COP26 cannot be underestimated. It is the deadline for countries to refresh their climate plans and specify their Nationally Determined Contributions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement. But beyond that, a UK hosted COP will be critical for the nation.   

Firstly, UK leadership will shape the outcome of COP26 and have reverberations internationally.  Secondly, this will provide an opportunity to create low carbon innovation at home, supporting the 2050 net zero ambitions while paving the way for a green recovery out of the pandemic. 

A new report by Forum for the Future details a scenario in which the ambitions of a green recovery are realised for the UK. The pandemic could be used by policymakers as an opportunity to ‘reset’ economic models by collaboration with the public and private sector to stimulate a just transition towards net zero. Environmental and social impacts could be properly considered during decision-making processes and integrated into joinedup policy and business frameworks to deliver net-positive impacts.  

But how can we transcend environmental ambitions to make them a reality? While progress has been made, we must realise that incrementalism is sharkish and malign for UK environmental prosperity. Instead, the way we heat our homes, how we travel and what we eat all need to drastically change.

This is where local authorities play a vital role, due to their responsibilities in areas like housing, transport and green spaces, and their convening power, influence and local knowledge. We know local authorities are ready to mobilise – three quarters of councils have declared a climate emergency.

The importance of a green recovery is recognised, through rebuilding local economies alongside the wider benefits such as safe and clean streets, affordable domestic heating and better jobs.  

Announcing its sixth Carbon Budget, the Climate Change Committee said: Top-down policies go some way to delivering change, but can achieve a far greater impact if they are focused through local knowledge and networks.

But heading into 2021, councils are desperately underfunded and underresourced. They must be given new powers, funding and support by central government to initiate the environmental action that only they can, and at the scale and pace needed to address the ecological and societal emergencies.   

Although 2020 did not result in the anticipated super year for the environment, we cannot deny the elevated ecological awareness and the subsequent recognition that a green recovery from Covid is the only recovery that makes economic sense. Fundamentally, the ability of local authorities to respond most effectively and accurately in a crisis, be that Covid or climate, while still meeting local needs cannot be ignored any further.  

For 2021 to be the environmental ‘super’ year which 2020 failed to be, ambition needs serious spending commitments and quantifiable action towards local authorities, who will be the drivers of a green and just recovery. 

Grace Newcombe is lead clean growth researcher, Localis

This article first appeared in the Air Quality News magazine, click here to view. 


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