Across the world, national and local governments are declaring a climate emergency on the back of dire warnings from UN scientists about the need for urgent and far-reaching action that have triggered a wave of protests from school children and given rise to the Extinction Rebellion movement.

Within just three months, 42 councils have signed the pledge – representing over 17 million people between them in the UK  – and more than 34 million in the US, Australia, Canada and Switzerland.

Declaring a climate emergency creates an opportunity to:

  1. Involve citizens through citizen’s assemblies and other processes of participation and consultation in setting priorities for ambitious carbon reduction and understanding and engaging with the difficult choices that implies.
  2. Create healthier, more resilient and sustainable local communities powered by locally generated low carbon energy, served by affordable and sustainable transport, higher quality and more efficient housing stock and fed by sustainable food and land systems.
  3. Un-do business as usual. In a time of cut-backs, reverse costly policies and investments in carbon-intensive infrastructures such as roads or airports and divest council pension funds from fossil fuels.

What does it mean to declare a climate emergency?

For a council to have called a ‘climate emergency’, commonly advanced guidelines say that they must have: used these specific words in a motion or executive decision; they must set a target date to reduce their local climate impacts consistent with the IPCC report; they must set up a working group to report within a short timescale; and they must engage with a cross section of the community.

When in ‘emergency mode’, councils must allocate discretionary funds towards climate action. That includes things such as: educating the community, advocating for action from higher level governments, mitigating and building resilience against the impacts of climate change, and funding or undertaking the planning and research needed to implement full state and national emergency mobilisation.

A rapid rise of local and city level activism has led to a number of councils declaring a climate emergency. Credit: ‘Climate Emergency Demonstration 10’ by Friends of the Earth Scotland. CC BY 2.0

So far, councils’ pledges and aims have varied enormously. For example: Scarborough council has committed to a target of zero carbon emissions by 2030, and will seek up to £80,000 in funding over two years for a sustainability officer to help achieve their goals. Meanwhile, Liverpool City Council deleted all references to declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ and many of the suggested actions to be taken. Its plan has no stated target, no timeline and no budget. In Lancaster and Oxford a Citizen’s Assembly is being set up as part of their process; this is a deliberative process in which a representative group of citizens selected at random from the population, learn about, discuss, and make recommendations in relation to a particular issue or set of issues.

Local governments are often in the front line of dealing with climate change impacts (such as flooding, fires, storm damage) and the on the receiving end of demands for mitigation action. A key issue is working out what local governments have exclusive control over (as opposed to national and regional authorities): and where the boundaries of responsibility lie, because with climate change they are often very complex and diffuse. Clearly councils also facing funding difficult constraints. Yet, across transport, energy, housing, waste, buildings, people are looking to councils for leadership.

So what can they do?

We are not short of concrete ideas about what to do. Reports such as Zero Carbon Britain show sector by sector analysis of what’s possible in the UK by 2025. Many cities have already taken the lead with emissions reduction pledges and zero carbon targets including commitments from Bristol and Manchester aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030 and 2038 respectively. Across the world, the cities organisation C40 has been calling for fossil free streets: commitments to procure only zero-emission buses from 2025; and ensuring a major area of the city is zero emission by 2030.

Planning is key and so is reducing demand. The services people want, such as heat and mobility, are often those they show the greatest indifference towards. We are often fearful of challenging people’s attachment to their cars, for example. But if safe, reliable and affordable alternatives are provided, people will use them. When affordable and accessible infrastructures are built for buses and bikes and pedestrians, people use them as numerous examples around the world have shown.

Around housing, councils can help to deliver on the government pledge to halve energy use from new build by 2030 and for all new homes to be heated by fossil free systems by 2025. They can promote energy efficiency schemes and exploit other grant funding, promote new carbon neutral housing schemes, either as authority owned projects or with partners and transform council’s own properties to maximise their own potential for energy production and saving.

Regarding transport, councils can promote energy efficiency in local transport, promote cycling and car sharing, consider car exclusion zones or access charges, promote the use of electric cars by providing charging points and invest in EV infrastructure, improve public transport integration (bikes, buses and trains) and consider how transport contracts can be used to promote green travel.

On energy, councils can promote low energy use- smart energy, energy efficiency and conservation. They can consider providing funding for solar energy installations on the basis of shared returns, review the authority’s own energy use and consider setting up ESCOs (energy service companies).

Others areas include waste and food. Councils can review waste and recycling policies- take pressure off land-fill and reduce methane and other emissions. Where possible they might target food consumption through procurement and menus in schools to include less meat and dairy.

In terms of business, they can promote support services for local businesses. Preferential business rates for local firms, for example, as part of much needed regional redevelopment, or creating Local Enterprise Partnerships to set up low carbon enterprise zones with tax breaks to nurture jobs, investment and innovation.

What can we stop doing?

As well as thinking creatively about how to deliver services in low carbon ways, we also need to accelerate the shift away from the fossil fuel economy.

Declaring an emergency permits a veto over actions which are incompatible with radical decarbonisation in line with the Paris agreement, and climate-proofing all areas of policy. This should mean divestment from fossil fuels. Local councils in the UK invest over £14 billion in the fossil fuel industry. Divestment from cities assets from fossil fuels though pension funds sends a powerful signal and makes a major contribution. Of the 1032 institutions that have divested from fossil fuels worldwide, just 15% are governments. But there are now more than 15 UK councils – from Sheffield to Stroud, Brighton to Birmingham –calling for divestment from their pension funds.

Beyond the local

Local council action doesn’t exist in a vacuum of course. Some of the measures described above require a supportive national regulatory environment. Financing could be delivered as part of a Green New Deal. Carbon budgets need to be set and enforced by independent national agencies such as the climate change committee. National government needs to give direction by laying down limits and reversing major decisions that produce carbon lock-in incompatible with 1.5 around airport expansion and fracking for example. Local government can make their voice heard to lobby government on this.

Declaring a climate emergency is just a starting point, and not without its challenges. But the good news is there are numerous policies that can be put in place as well as initiatives bubbling up from below that can be harnessed to scale up and accelerate the pace of change.

So what are we waiting for?