In October last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a vital report on the state of climate science, warning that if the planet warmed by 1.5C there would be devastating consequences.
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 energy, land, industrial, urban and other systems to reduce emissions, unprecedented in history for its speed.
The IPCC report appears to have been a pivotal moment for local government. Starting in Australia, councils decided that they had to do something about this, linked to new and more challenging targets for emissions reductions.
The movement shifted to the UK, where in November 2018, the councils of two major cities, Bristol and Manchester, passed motions declaring a 'climate emergency' and setting targets to be carbon neutral by 2030 and 2038 respectively.
This was driven by grass roots pressure from the populace.
Since then, there has been a wave of climate emergency declarations by over fifty councils across the UK, including small town councils, larger borough councils, metropolitan councils, county councils and the Greater London Authority. A full list is featured on the Campaign Against Climate Change website.
There is much that can be said about these resolutions, such as whether many – if any – of the councils actually have a comprehensive plan of how they are going to reach the most popular target of being carbon neutral by 2030, now just 12 years away.
There are complications in the legal framework, where the government and not local authorities is responsible for climate change, and in two tier areas, where more than one council exists in tandem but with different powers.
However, for this purpose the issue is whether this movement will lead to more renewable energy projects? It is highly likely that it will. The reason for this is that energy is the preferred route to tackle this problem for many of the authorities concerned.
The resolutions require action across an area, not just the emissions of the council itself, and so this means that the council has to work with a broad number of other parties, including universities, the third sector, young people, community bodies, churches, sports clubs, the NHS and so on. Each has something different to bring to the party.
Local authorities, however, are critically aware of the political risk of such a movement. If a target is set, aspirations laid down and work commences towards that goal, then progress simply has to be made. If not, the council concerned is taking considerable political risk that it will be held responsible at local level for that failure.
Taking a purist line on climate change, action is all around emissions rather than energy. This means looking at where emissions emanate from and seeking to take action. This includes wide areas such as agriculture, transport and aviation. Such progress involves comprehensive behaviour change, reducing consumption, lowering energy use, going without and so on – all of which are unpopular with the public.
However, many local authorities are looking at climate change through the energy prism, seeing this as an area that is within their control (certainly so far as their own assets and land is concerned) and one where they can demonstrate real progress. This approach is not new – for example the UK 100 group, which is a network of highly ambitious local government leaders, who have pledged to address climate change by shifting to 100% clean energy by 2050. So the notion of focussing on the clearer area of energy, rather the more nebulous area of climate change itself, is gaining momentum.
There is another issue here related to the political risk of these declarations. That is that if the right level of progress is not going to be made, the councils concerned will want to ensure that they can demonstrate that they played their part, put their shoulder to the wheel so to speak and made a difference.
Energy projects give them that ability. It may well pan out that the councils pursue the energy line and leave the others to tackle the rest. Then if the wider groups fail to make that progress on the difficult behaviour change issues, the council will be able to differentiate itself with its work on local renewable energy.
So where FITs and ROC incentives have largely failed and where even government financial cuts and austerity have not driven councils wholesale towards renewable energy, perhaps the age old climate change movement - which has throughout been sitting behind all this like Hamlet’s ghost – will finally do so, based on grass roots pressure.
It is going to be interesting to see how these particular local authorities take their next steps.