Local authorities need more incentives to cut carbon

This is a guest post by David Kennedy, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change

Our report on how local authorities can reduce emissions originated in questions raised as the Energy Bill passed through Parliament in 2010. In particular, there was a suggestion that local authorities should be set carbon budgets. Greg Barker’s response was to commission us to provide advice on the role of local authorities in reducing emissions.

We put together a small team of analysts and started work in January 2011. As with all our work, we first identified a set of key questions. In this case, these were:

  • What emissions do local authorities influence, given the levers available to them?
  • What is the scale of the emissions reduction opportunity?
  • What are the specific approaches that local authorities should adopt?
  • Should local authorities set or be set carbon budgets?
  • Are there sufficiently strong incentives for local authorities to act, or are further incentives required?

Answering these questions involved drawing on our national models of abatement potential across the various emitting sectors (buildings, transport, etc.), and reviewing the large evidence base on local authorities and low carbon activity. In addition we went out and talked to various local authorities to understand how things are working on the ground.

Local authorities are key to meeting national carbon targets
On the scope of local authorities, I was surprised at quite how big this is. What our analysis showed is that without emissions reductions through measures where local authorities have influence, we would find it very hard to meet carbon budgets. Rather than implementing costs effective measures with wider economic and social benefits, we would instead be forced to buy European Union Allowances or offset credits at much higher cost. This is something we should try very hard to avoid.

Hence our conclusion that there is a crucial role for local authorities reducing emissions in buildings, transport, waste and on their own estate, but also an important supporting role in onshore wind investment and electric vehicle market development.

Local authorities need carbon plans
On the issue of carbon budgets, we were mindful of our work in Scotland, where setting targets has raised difficult questions about emissions accounting. The same issues arise when thinking about local authorities (e.g. how could we set targets for power sector decarbonisation at the local level?). Moreover, we concluded that there are too many emissions drivers beyond the control of local authorities, and so to set local carbon budgets would not be sensible. Instead we recommended that local authorities should develop carbon plans focused on things that they can influence.

Local authority action on climate change is at risk
When thinking about whether there are sufficient incentives for local authorities to act, I was very struck by Green Alliance’s localism report. This worried me, as did our conversations with local authorities, which suggested that action has been squeezed as a result of budget cuts and the abolition of the national indicator framework. So although we found many examples where local authorities are acting, we could not be confident that there will be the comprehensive action required. This is why we recommended the need for further incentives (i.e. a statutory duty to develop and implement ambitious carbon plans, and / or additional funding).

Some people have come back and said this goes against the current political approach. To which my answer is that local authorities developing their own carbon plans does not seem to me to conflict with localism. More generally, we do no tailor our advice to what may or may not be politically acceptable – our focus is what is required to meet legally binding carbon budgets.

I have greatly enjoyed our work on local authorities, and am grateful to all the people who helped us with it. Going forward, now we have noted that this is a very important area, we will work further on it, and monitor it closely.

One comment

  • I think the problem with the proposed duty is twofold: that to many if *feels* like it’s not in the spirit of localism, simply because it is imposed from the centre; and secondly, that many of us who have worked in/with local government for decades know the sector’s capability to comply with unwelcome duties in a way which makes very little difference on the ground. Those of us who promote local action on carbon were torn between this view and, on the other hand, the findings of the Green Alliance report you referred to. Some of us narrowly opposed the duty when weighing it up (including me: http://wp.me/p2jpRC-2u, but only if there is not a centrally-signed-off plan required); others were narrowly against.

    I believe there is a missed opportunity here, though, and it depends on what we think local government is for. I’m ambitious for local government. I believe it is there to ‘place shape’, not just deliver/commission services. So introducing accountability for things over which it does not have complete control should not be a problem. From this ambitious viewpoint, local government should embrace local carbon budgets, as councils have to want to shape a low carbon future, even if they cannot control it precisely. I fear that the local government family’s misunderstanding of local carbon budgets – seeing them as ‘top-down, centrally-imposed’, rather than ‘taking on our fair share of carbon reduction’ has led the Committee towards a recommendation that is likely to be rejected or lead to a messy compromise that will make little difference on the ground.

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