Councils declaring climate emergency: new hope for climate action?
Scientists make it clear - we're facing a climate emergency
On 8th October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a vital report on the state of climate science. They warned that if the planet warmed by 1.5C there would be some devastating consequences, such as the loss of most coral reefs, and increased extreme weather such as heatwaves and floods. Yet the consequences of allowing 2C warming would be truly catastrophic. Given that the planet is currently heading for 3-4C warming, keeping to 1.5C requires a radical shift across across energy, land, industrial, urban and other systems to reduce emissions, unprecedented in history for its speed.
On 29th October, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, set out his budget. It did not mention climate change.
Local councils setting targets for going zero carbon
In November, the councils of two major cities, Bristol and Manchester, passed motions declaring a 'climate emergency' and setting targets aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030 and 2038 respectively. Since then, there has been a wave of Climate Emergency declarations by around twenty councils across the UK (see the list below and also check out the Climate Emergency website)
Climate Emergency Conference, 29 March
To find out more about this groundbreaking movement and about how local councils can help lead the climate emergency, attend this FREE conference in Lancaster, with a wide range of workshops and speakers. If you can't get there physically there will be opportunities to participate via video conferencing
Current climate emergency petitions (Climate Emergency website)
Calendar of council debates coming up (Climate Emergency website)
What can we hope for from Climate Emergency motions? And what next?
We are used to politicians proceeding with 'business as usual' in the face of increasingly desperate warnings from scientists. So local councils adopting a more reality-based approach is heartening. Many of these motions have been brought by Green Party councillors, but importantly, they have generally depended on cross-party support. In Conservative-led Scarborough Borough Council, campaigners said "if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere". In Cornwall, where a motion was brought by a Lib Dem councillor, amended by a Labour councillor to strengthen it, and after a two hour debate to a packed public gallery, councillors from different parties voted almost unanimously to support the amended motion.
The largest authority to vote to declare a climate emergency is the London Assembly, who have called on the Mayor to declare a Climate Emergency and for him to put together a plan with specific actions needed for London to be carbon neutral by 2030. This has been accepted by Sadiq Khan, but with no additional commitments so far.
Are Climate Emergency motions just paying lip service to the radical action needed? This is of greatest concern where some motions have been amended to remove specific targets and dates. But in all these councils, campaigners' continued efforts will be crucial in turning abstract targets into reality. Local action will still face central government policy that is often far from supportive of radical climate action, for example the continuing effective ban on new onshore wind energy in England, and severe budget cuts.
But councils must be held to account for planning decisions. In the same meeting that they voted to declare a Climate Emergency, Oxford City Council voted against supporting a major road-building project, the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, a strong statement of commitment. In North Somerset, councillors who voted through a climate emergency motion will be deciding whether to approve the expansion of Bristol airport to a level where the emissions would be greater than the rest of the local authority put together. Manchester City Council excluded the airport from local climate targets despite the fact that Manchester Airport is majority owned by the councils of Greater Manchester and they are currently planning to spend £50 million on a new airport car park.
Are the targets achievable? Public support will be vital, and of course national policies will still make a big difference. One of the smaller authorities so far is Machynlleth in Wales, where the Centre for Alternative Technology have been working for years on what 'zero carbon' would look like in the UK, as set out in their Zero Carbon Britain reports.
What you can do if your council isn't on the list
Why not try and get it on there? Talk to local groups, and sympathetic councillors, and start a petition.
There's a Campaign Guide to read, and further resources at the bottom of this page.
Some Climate Emergency motions are relatively brief - this suggested text draws on some which are more detailed.
(Principal) councils which have already passed motions
Please note there isn't a definitive list since definitions may differ - Manchester's motion for example, did not use the term 'climate emergency; others have been heavily criticised for failing to set a new target date for reducing emissions. All are of course a work in progress for campaigners, since passing a motion is only the first step!
(Any missing above? Email firstname.lastname@example.org)