Like many people, I am disappointed and deeply concerned at the lack of progress being made on tackling the climate emergency at every level. We are running out of time, and already seeing the consequences of that inaction. Many of you will have seen reports of the heat dome in the Pacific Northwest, and the devastating flooding in Germany and its neighbouring countries. We also know about the global injustice of the climate crisis, where poorer countries who are the least responsible, are suffering the consequences of our over consumption.
Climate change is not a future threat but a present-day reality. Yet there is a huge gap between the global goal set at the Paris Climate Agreement and the actual commitments individual nations have made. In order to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels, global emissions need to be around 25 gigatons of CO2e by 2030. We are expected to reach 56 gigatons by 2030 by the commitments made by individual countries. Worse still, of those commitments made, most nations are not on track to meet them, including the UK.
We are also witnessing issues around net-zero commitments. Net zero commitments are needed because the only way we can limit warming to 1.5 degrees at this stage with the amount of CO2 we’ve already emitted is with large scale carbon dioxide removal. Sadly, this has led to a reckless ‘burn now, pay later’ approach, where there is more effort put into offsetting and very little in regard to the required cuts in fossil fuel use.
Tackling climate change is a global issue, and it requires global action. It has been widely reported that the UK government decided to break its election promise and cut foreign aid by circa £4 billion. You may wonder what this has to do with climate change. The most pressing challenges we face are global including climate change and part of the UK’s foreign aid is used on climate change initiatives. The International Climate Finance (ICF) pot of money that sits within the foreign aid budget is being increased but this is for developing countries to limit their carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. Developing countries have very little by way of carbon emissions. It is developed countries that produce most of the planets carbon emissions, and as such, it is adaptation that developing countries need the financial assistance with. This however makes no mention of the ground-breaking research projects that the foreign aid budget was supporting that if funded properly, will benefit us all in our quest to limit global warming. And it doesn’t take account of the net effect from the reduction in the foreign aid budget. Developing countries are not getting the Covid vaccines they need because countries like ours have cornered the market, travel restrictions have killed their tourist industries and the rest of the aid budget has been savaged.
At the other end of the scale, we have a national government that does not like local government. It consistently underfunds local authorities like Wokingham and removes power. A classic example is in planning and the reforms being proposed that will remove the voice of local communities. The same is true when it comes to tackling climate change.
In 2012, in response to a government question, a group of experts described how local authorities can show leadership in tackling climate change including through making houses and buildings more sustainable, encouraging low carbon transport and improved waste management. The Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how important local authorities and communities are. People on the ground in their communities making decisions for those communities because they know and understand them. We need national government to wake up and stop centralising power and give it to the people.
The good news is that most councils have a declared climate emergency and the majority of those councils have set aggressive zero carbon targets. The disappointing news is that the sector is likely underperforming. A 2019 report from Friends of the Earth said councils are not doing enough. UK100 said “to enable local government to play its full part and unlock the benefits of climate action in communities across the country, it must be given more powers and resources.”
Local authorities like Wokingham Borough Council have a number of statutory duties that they have to deliver. These cover all manner of areas including planning, social care etc. Not one of these duties covers climate change. And in the government’s 10-point plan for tackling climate change, local authorities are mentioned just once and gives them no new powers to tackle it. In fact, this 10-point plan pledges £12billion but fails to mention that only £4billion is new money. Where are the discussions on integrating local authorities into the national plan?
Councils need to be given the ability and resources to insist on sustainable housing, to incentivise the use of renewable energy, to recycle more waste and to move to low carbon forms of transport. Councils need to be given a clear roadmap as to how they can implement the Government’s ambitious plans. If not, they risk failure.
For Wokingham Borough Council, whilst waiting for the government to wake up and do the right thing, there is much more it could be doing rather than cherry picking what looks good on an election leaflet. For one thing, it could be prioritising emission reduction projects over offsetting projects. And one of the most important steps it could take is to reach out to the community. I’m not talking about through it’s usual forms of communication which are typically one-way and a box ticking exercise, but through a deliberative process that brings experts and the public together to share and discuss a way forward with everyone on board. A solution based on sound evidence and pragmatism.