Our national response to climate change needs to be rooted in communities
As the global power elite descend on Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit next week, all eyes will be upon them to see if they can put our long-term existence on this planet ahead of short-term national concerns.
The outcome is nowhere near assured – previous COPs have ended either in vacuous promises or disarray.
Tired of waiting for a sluggish international response and politicians with a time horizon no longer than the next election, New Local’s new report, Communities Vs Climate Change, argues that the missing level in our response to climate change is local.
We need a much more radical devolution to be recognised as a route to making the shift to net zero
The twofold challenge of adaptation to the emerging effects of climate change and transition to a carbon net zero economy cannot simply be mandated from Parliament. We need a much more radical devolution to be recognised as a route to making the shift to net zero in a way that minimises the fallout and maximises equity for everyone.
The government’s new Net Zero Strategy has warm words about the role of local action and the responsibility of local authorities, but it doesn’t commit the power and resource to make a response built from the ground up meaningful.
Conceiving our response to climate change in a series of local actions can be powerful. Evidence shows that public opinion is ahead of government on climate change. An Ipsos Mori poll just this summer found it was the second biggest issue, only behind the pandemic as a concern. But as individuals the scale of the challenge can feel overwhelming and make any personal behaviour change feel inadequate, just as the national or international levels are too abstract.
The local level offers a more meaningful scale for action that can bring people together and realise change. Communities are already showing the progress they can make if they are in control, from new community-owned sustainable energy in a an estate on the edge of Bristol; to environmental projects that are providing young people with new skills for employment in Middlesbrough.
The wealth of grassroots action on climate change shows that just as the impacts of climate change will be felt locally, our national response needs to be rooted in communities too. The requirements of a transition to net zero will be different in different areas depending on geographic features and the nature of the local economy. Places more prone to flooding will have to make more drastic adaptations. And communities with a large proportion of jobs dependent on energy-hungry industry will need more opportunities to reskill and transition smoothly to green industry.
Unless government gives communities the power and resource to navigate their own path to net zero, the demands of climate change risk dislodging the levelling up agenda before it gets going. As we have learnt from the experience of previous industrial transitions, those areas hit hardest by change need the power and resource to respond, or there is a risk we will create a new wave of left behind areas. There will be trade-offs – these cannot be ignored by a national Parliament using the blunt instrument of legislation or a one-size-fits-all policy response.
But the role of a powerful local democratic tier in all this is overlooked and under-resourced. The levers local authorities have at their disposal to make the necessary adaptations are weak to non-existent. They lack enough powers to adapt local economic investment, tailor skills provision, retrofit existing housing or mandate zero carbon new builds. A renewed, more radical approach to devolution would seek to redress this local governance deficit and give areas the tools they need to respond, building legitimacy and consent with the public along the way.
While the conference rooms in Glasgow next week will be abuzz with high level deal-making, the hard work of an effective climate response will have consequences for many aspects of all our lives. So, a successful transition isn’t something that can be done to us by the people in charge, it must be led by us all. For a challenge that is global, a meaningful response will be local.
Jessica Studdert is the Deputy Chief Executive of New Local.
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