Net Zero From the Ground Up: the case for councils

We’re launching a new campaign, ‘Net Zero In My Neighbourhood’. This blog explores why we’re focusing on local councils for climate action, and how you can get involved.

I’d like to use my car less but public transport is unreliable.

I’d like to recycle more but recycling bins are only collected fortnightly.

I’d like to be more energy efficient but the costs of insulating and heating my home properly are too high.

If you’ve ever had thoughts like these, you’ll know that it can be difficult to live a more planet-friendly lifestyle when your local infrastructure doesn’t offer the support you need. National leaders can sign treaties and individuals can commit to make changes, but without the crucial middle layer of public services, we can struggle to connect our personal willingness to act with change on a global scale.

The attention given to COP26 rightly showed the importance of international cooperation, and agreements made at that level are essential for coordinating global action. Many felt disappointed by the outcomes of talks in Glasgow, but it has helped to place climate at the top of the political agenda.

If you felt disempowered and unrepresented by world leaders at COP26, you can have a real impact by engaging with your local councils. Local politics may not seem as glitzy or important as global conferences, but they have a series of responsibilities that can take the area you live in a long way towards a net zero future. The recent election of new councillors presents an opportunity for you and your church to reach out and build a relationship to work together on climate and other issues – and councils are increasingly looking to churches for community support.

The case for councils

So why do local councils matter for net zero?

Research from the Local Government Association (LGA) suggests that local authorities have influence over roughly a third of emissions in their local areas. This is mainly due to their responsibilities in four key areas:

  • Transport. Councils oversee local transport plans and can prioritise decarbonisation efforts. They also play a key role in supporting the transition to electric vehicle use, and developing walking and cycling infrastructure. Nottingham city council, for example, has installed more than 130 public electric vehicle charging points, and has one of the UK’s largest fleets of electric buses.
  • Buildings. Councils play a key role in ensuring new buildings are energy efficient and old buildings can be retrofitted with better insulation and heating systems. This applies both to council-owned buildings (including council buildings, social housing, commercial units, schools, leisure centres etc.) and privately-owned buildings. They oversee planning and regulation (although they are constrained by standards set by national government) and can map the housing stock of the area. Somerset West and Taunton district council has pledged to manage its buildings and land in a biodiversity-friendly manner and is building zero-carbon council houses, as well as retrofitting existing homes across the district.
  • Energy. Every council can encourage the development of clean energy infrastructure. They can bring relevant local partners together to develop the future of local energy, influence clean energy infrastructure implementation with planning policy, and offer support for local people and community energy organisations to undertake energy projects. Telford and Wrekin council has built a publicly-owned solar farm, which has saved more than 13,000 tonnes of CO2 and generated £1.3m for the council.
  • Waste. Councils are responsible for the collection and disposal of household and commercial waste. They can take steps to increase recycling, implement food and garden waste collections, and improve communications about appropriate waste disposal. Stroud district council has created a local waste-management company in partnership with neighbouring authorities, and now sends the least waste per capita to landfill.

Councils are well-placed to deliver on net zero as they are the master planners of places, convenors of civil society and business, and have detailed knowledge of place and people. With their understanding of the specific needs of their locality, they can ensure the transition to net zero is just and appropriate to place.

Yet they are also limited in what they can achieve by the responsibilities and resources devolved to them by central government. The LGA has asked to work in closer partnership with government, calling for longer-term funding and unambiguous policy positions that allow councils to plan strategically over a number of years. As David Renard, leader of Swindon council put it, ‘net zero can only be achieved if councils are empowered’.

85% of local authorities in the UK have set a target year for reaching net zero emissions. The vast majority of these come well in advance of the national government’s own target of 2050. 88% have published climate action plans, outlining how they plan to reach net zero. For residents, the task is now to scrutinise the quality of these plans, ask for improvements, and hold councils accountable to implementing them.

You can see how your council compares to others and identify what they can improve here, and see an example of a good template plan here.

The role of churches

Having made their plans, councils need to listen deeply to the needs of their communities in order to succeed. Churches can play a key role in facilitating this. They too have a deep understanding of their area, and often have relationships with those who are marginalised through support services like foodbanks and homeless shelters.

Justice for people and planet is central to our theology. Christians can play a key role in bringing their own knowledge of the community together with this concern for justice to ensure that councils’ plans for transition are just, fair and sufficient. As the cost-of-living crisis bites, Christians should campaign for a renewable energy future that is affordable and sustainable, rather than abandon the net zero agenda and re-embrace fossil fuels. All of creation, human and otherwise, deserves a more thoughtful response than closing our eyes and ignoring the challenge that we know we must face.

Take Action: Net Zero In My Neighbourhood

So how can we take action? As many of us will now have a new set of councillors in place, it’s a great time to question your council on their net zero commitments as they plan their agenda. Check out your council’s stated climate plans, and identify where they can improve. You could use this excellent guide from Climate Emergency UK to begin a conversation about the changes they can make.

To support this, we’re launching a new campaign called ‘Net Zero In My Neighbourhood’. We’ll be calling on churches to be convening spaces for their communities to meet together with local councils, in order to secure a just and fair transition towards net zero.

It’s crucial that local churches build strong relationships with their local councillors, whether newly-elected or well-established, so that they can play a key role in advocating for the communities they know and serve. Net Zero In My Neighbourhood will build the foundation to do just that, bringing people together and offering tools and resources to get you going. The transition to net zero is an essential goal that can be achieved if we value the local – and churches can lead the way in making sure it is a just transition.

Sign up to join our network of activists and hear more at the bottom of this page.

Also, you can join us as we seek to reimagine power and politics From the Ground Up at our conference on June 11th, where we will be running an introductory workshop for this campaign.

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