Councils declaring climate emergency: what next?

Local declarations of a climate emergency are a key driver of change. As a result of effective climate change campaigning, 65% of District, county, unitary & metropolitan councils have declared a Climate Emergency so far. Check if yours has here

These motions generally depend on cross-party support - depoliticising climate change is key to making effecitve progress. In Conservative led Scarborough Borough Council, campaigners said "if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere" and in Cornwall, a motion was formulated via a collaboration of a Liberal Democrat councillor and a Labour councillor, whch was then supported almost unanimously by councillors from different parties when the motion was put forward. 

However, local organisations and communities cannot act alone! National government plays a key role in many of the policy areas that are vital to reducing emissions and adapting to climate change. 

In May 2019, after months of protest across the country, the UK government declared a climate emergency, an in June 2019 MP's followed this up with legislation for 2050 net-zero emissions targets for the whole of the UK. However, this action is criticised to be inadequate. Furthermore, at the current rate it is predicted that the UK will miss the 2050 net-zero target with dire consequences (see article here), unless more policy is created, supported by the fact that less than a year after the declaration the government was already off-course on its targets. Therefore, the action of local councils is more crucial than ever, and the adoption of local authorities of targets for carbon neutrality by 2030 will help achieve in areas where the government is failing.

It is important to ensure that Climate Emergency declarations are not just paying lip service to the radical action needed. This is a great concern considering the amendment to some motions to remove specific targets and dates. And so, in all councils, campaigners' efforts will be fundamental in keeping pressure in order to turn abstract targets into genuine implementation. Local action will still face central government policy that is often far from supporttive of radical climate action, for example the continuing effecitve ban on onshore wind energy in England, and severe budget cuts. 

Resources for constituents:

Actions to take if your local council has not declared a climate emergency:

  • Check for an existing petition to sign or use those existing as a template. 
  • Read and take inspiration from Climate Emergency UK's campaign guide for emergency declaration. 
  • Read this blog post by Deb Joffe from Swindon Climate Action Network which provides a research summary for how to best approach and engage councillors on the climate emergency. 

Actions to take if your local council has declared a climate emergency:

Declarations of a climate emergency by a local council does not neccessarily translate into positive climate action. Councils must be held into account for considering the climate impact of planning decisions. For example, Oxford voted against supporting a major road-building project, the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, in the same meeting that they voted to declare a climate emergency. A clear statement of committment to their declaration. Inaction following climate emergency declaration is a clear issue. For example, 7 months after their declaration Bury council in Greater Manchester is criticised for making no active progress on their commitments. It is also important to consider whether targets set out are achievable. One of the smaller authorities, Machynlleth in Wales, the centre for Alternate technology has been working for years on what 'zero carbon' would look like in the UK (see their Zero Carbon Britain reports).

  • Form a citizen's assembly

Effective action can include the formation of citizens assemblies in which a representative group of peopel are brought together to discuss an issue or issues and reach a conclusion about what they think should happen. This both enables more public conversation about de-carbonisation and have the potential to demonsrate that there is a real political mandate for politicians across the UK to act on climate change. Including a wide cross-section of the community in the debate at the local level can send a strong message to politicians in Westminster, reinforcing calls for a national citizens assembly from groups like Extinction Rebellion and others. Ensuring that local people have a voice in the decision-making process can also promote widespread public support for climate action. Find out about the success of Oxforshire and Leeds climate change citizens assemblies. 

  • Get connected!

Sign up to join the climate emergency UK forum to discuss and share ideas with other campaigners and councillors who are working at the local level to address the climate emergency. 

  • Consider local, community owned, energy.

This is alos crucial to a low carbon economy. Help your local area benefit from these changes by encouraging your council to work with the Department for Business, Energy and Idustrial Strategy's Local Energy Hubs, which have been set up to support local energy initiatives. 

Resources for councillors:

How to declare a climate emergency? 

Green innovations in Australia provide a useful guide on the steps required for a local council to declare a climate emergency and develop a climate emergency programme with the appropriate components. 

What should a climate emergency motion look like? Generally they should:
  • use the words 'climate emergency' ;
  • set a target date to reduce their local climate impacts (generally 2030)
  • provide for a working group to report within a short timescale on immediate and longer term actions to be taken;
  • plan to engage with a cross section of the community.

What next?

  • Get connected! - Sign up to join the climate emergency UK forum to discuss and share ideas with other campaigners and councillors who are working at the local level to address the climate emergency.
  • ARUP provide 9 step guidance for local authorities on what to do after declaring a climate emergency.
  • Browse action plans of other councils.
  • Read how other councils have acted on their commitments here.
  • Take inspiration from what municipalities around the world have been doing e.g. Finland, Australia.
  • If your parish or town has recently declared a Climate Emergency, then you might want to check this resource to see whether your community could come together to create a low carbon neighbourhood development plan.
  • Friends of the Earth have put together a briefing with 33 actions that councils can take to help get to net zero emissions. The briefing includes information on how these actions can be funded and examples from areas where they've already been successul.
  • Find more ideas for actions local councils can take in this guide to planning for climate change by the town and country planning association and in this article on civic plans for the climate emergency published by the Rapid Transition Alliance. 

Priority Areas for Local Climate Action

Climate change is connected to almost every area of modern life. So, it can be hard to know where to start when deciding what actions to push your local authority to take. We've identified four priority areas to get you started:

1. Planning: Currently, national legislation imposes a duty on councils to ensure that local planning policies contribute to emissions reduction targets. Yet for years this duty has been neglected. You can read more about the Local Plans and the Climate Emergency and how you can get involved in the planning process here or check out the recording of a recent webinar on the topic hosted by Climate Emergency UK.
2. Transport: The transport sector is UK’s single biggest source of carbon emissions. Reforming our transport system to reduce reliance on passenger cars and move towards a system based on public transport, walking, and cycling is vital if the UK is to meet emissions reduction targets. Ideas for how local authorities can step up their game on creating low-carbon transit systems can be found on the website of the Campaign for Better Transport.
3. Energy: Local councils have enormous potential to increase energy efficiency and reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based energy sources. From identifying new sites for renewable energy projects and refusing permission for fossil fuel extraction to developing district heating systems, providing funding for community energy schemes, and forming their own energy companies, local authorities across the country are already impacting the UK’s energy mix. There is huge potential to scale up these interventions. This guide produced by UK100, a network of ambitious local councils, and UK Power Networks provides information to help councils and others to understand how.
4. Central Government Engagement: Over the last ten years, local councils' ability to act on climate change has suffered significant setbacks thanks to massive funding cuts, the loss of skill staff, and the government’s policy of deregulation. In order to do improve their capacity to act on climate change local governments should coordinate their engagement with central government to demand the powers they need. This briefing from Friends of the Earth provides insights into 12 actions that could be taken in Westminster to support communities to achieve their climate mitigation targets.

Get your local council to declare a Climate Emergency

What Next? Climate action at the local authority level