Councils and the Climate Emergency

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written by

Peter Lefort

Aug 18, 2020

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This excerpt was published in Stir Magazine, Spring 2020. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

Since its inception in 2009, Cornwall Council has operated within a political narrative that has been shaped and dominated by austerity. Councils have taken a larger share of spending cuts than almost any other part of government, with Treasury support for councils falling from £7.2bn in 2016-17 to £2.3bn in 2019-20. Now, however, the socio-political environment within which councils operate is changing. During the next ten years and beyond, climate change will be the main disrupter to the existing economic paradigm of growth, presenting social and environmental challenges on a scale that is unprecedented.

In responding to these challenges, declaring a climate emergency has become the new normal for councils. Since Bristol and Trafford first made formal declarations in November 2018, now two thirds of local authorities across the UK have followed. Cornwall Council made its own in January 2019, and while there has been undoubted political momentum from such public statements, there remains a question about how we realise our ambition. 

The first steps after Cornwall’s declaration were to develop a baseline emissions inventory, understanding the scale of activity required to achieve carbon neutrality, as well as resource mapping and an action plan with over 120 key actions to shape the future activity of the Council. A deeper response, however, is to ask with what authority such a declaration is made. As councils, we have not reached this decision in isolation. We are all standing on the shoulders of decades of informed, passionate, and tireless campaigning. The climate emergency is not an issue we can own, and a declaration is not the end of the conversation. There is a real and tangible risk of councils placing themselves at the centre of society’s response in a way which disempowers others and creates a sense of inertia. Despite this, councils have a crucial part to play, and these declarations must be translated into practical examples of a collaborative new approach. 

The Committee on Climate Change states that for the UK to reach ‘carbon net zero’ by 2050, there will have to be a quadrupling of low carbon electricity, major scale carbon capture and storage, and a fifth of our agricultural land must shift to alternative use. All of this will need to be matched by accelerated afforestation and habitat restoration as well as a strategic overview of how communities will function. In Cornwall, however, as in many other areas, our commitment is to become carbon neutral by 2030, far ahead of the UK Government’s 2050 aim.

Ambitious targets are key to continue the momentum we have gained so far, but this ambition must be backed up with practical steps or inertia will quickly settle in. For Cornwall Council the challenge can be split into two: the emissions we have direct control over, and those we do not. Crucially our own emissions, which we can address through changes including reducing our staff travel while commuting and on Council business, along with developing a new approach to assessing development proposals, amount to only 1.5% of Cornwall’s total.

The other 98.5% poses a greater challenge. While many individuals and organisations are already taking great strides in reducing their own impacts, much more is needed. For councils, this presents a tension between a need for traditional leadership and a need for something new. Councils have economic, political and social power, and this cannot be ignored, but the scale of the climate emergency is unprecedented and new models of leadership will be needed to shape the dramatic changes we have to find collectively. This tension includes an acknowledgement of the relationship between traditional power and the term ‘emergency.’ In our own recent history, and more immediately in some parts of the world, emergencies hold significant meaning in terms of actions being taken by those in power to keep things as they are. It is easy to look to power for a solution, but in the climate emergency things cannot stay as they are, and the solution will not come from one place. 


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Combating climate change will require systemic change on a scale that is unprecedented. We will need seismic shifts in the way that people travel, work, heat, build, and insulate our homes, how industry operates and how we produce our food. It will also require major shifts in land use management, our consumption models, and a significant reduction in our demand for energy. In Cornwall we will also need to accept that the landscape and coastline, and elements of our heritage, will change. Cornwall Council has the levers to effect change in some areas through its planning service, its existing partnership boards, and its outreach into regional and national institutions. However, to play a leading role the Council will need to fundamentally change its focus and work alongside other leaders.

We are in uncharted territory. There is no frame of reference or path to follow for how we respond to these challenges. For Councils, the long-term urgency of climate breakdown must be balanced with the short-term delivery and support we are responsible for, for example adult and social care services. All within a wider context for local councils is one of budget cuts and rising costs. Many vital changes are outside the direct influence of councils. Complex systems like tourism, vital to Cornwall’s economy, are shaped by a number of factors without any one point of control. To deliver low carbon homes, meanwhile, will require presenting the case to the Government for a quicker transition towards the Future Homes building regulations standard. 

While we make the case for rapid change, there is the question of what exactly we should measure. Many baseline figures focus on Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, essentially the emissions directly produced by our actions and those resulting from the energy we use. But this does not account for Scope 3 emissions, those arising from our actions as consumers in a wider system. These are much harder to account for, but their impact is equally as important. As councils, like many other organisations, we have committed to carbon reduction as our mechanism for responding to the climate emergency, but it is vital that we work collaboratively deliver meaningful outcomes for everyone. More importantly, we can’t become consumed by a target which doesn’t actually describe the society we want to create. Carbon neutrality is our best chance of building a society which is thriving, resilient, and just. It is not the end goal in itself.

The task ahead is significant, but we’re not starting from scratch. Public awareness and concern around climate change are growing, and some tangible progress is already being made in carbon reduction. In Cornwall, we have reduced our emissions by 19% since 2010. More than ever before there is a growing comprehension of the realities of our situation, and the scale of the change needed to address it. One of the barriers to large-scale engagement on climate change has been the perceived invisibility of the impacts, and how they relate to our lives here and now. While this position is one of great privilege, compared to parts of the world which have been experiencing catastrophes for years, it has undoubtedly been a source of deep inertia.

Through widespread climate emergency declarations, however, we have found a frame which people can relate to. We are no longer struggling to define ourselves by how we are affected, instead we are finding opportunities to define ourselves by how we can respond. Every region of the UK, just like every individual, can make the most of its unique assets and adapt its behaviour. In Cornwall, our famous coastline holds huge potential in carbon sequestration through seaweed farming, with a research project already underway into the economic viability of such schemes. Our mining heritage, meanwhile, has left us with thousands of disused shafts, some of which could be used to store renewable energy through gravity-powered cantilevers or to heat our homes with mine water.


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Despite these physical resources, our most powerful lever is leadership, enabling action and galvanising partnerships to take a collective approach to tackling the most fundamental challenge of our time. With our unique opportunities we are part of a wider system, a system over which we do not have absolute control. But letting go of absolute control allows us much greater influence over that system, by enabling us to identify our role within it and the ways to make the change that is needed on a wider scale. The sheer ineffectiveness of small-scale change in the face of the climate emergency liberates us from trying to make small changes to perpetuate systems of overconsumption and increased inequality which have led us to this point. Change needs to be monumental. The ultimate challenge and the ultimate opportunity is that there is no such thing as business as usual. This is the message underneath climate emergency declarations and carbon neutrality targets. 

To put this into practice we have developed a decision-making wheel, based on Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics model. This wheel is being used across all of our decision- making processes, challenging our strategies, procurement, and investment decisions with the purpose of placing people and the climate at the heart of our strategies and decisions, and those decisions will be made publicly available to all. The wheel not only questions the environmental impact of a decision, for example greenhouse gas emissions or ocean health, but also the social impact. Indicators including wealth inequality, health, and connectivity are also considered, to understand the wider potential impacts of responding to the climate emergency. The wheel also supports a systems-thinking perspective, balancing potential short-term negative impacts against long-term positive impacts, and demonstrating transparency of how decisions have been made. In the spirit of being part of a wider system, we hope to make the wheel open source for other councils to use and adapt to their own contexts. 

The wheel adapts the existing roles and processes of a council into an approach which looks at the impacts across a whole system. It also embeds the principles of climate justice within the uncertain path which lies ahead. Without it, by focusing on carbon reduction as the end goal in and of itself, the very real risk is that the climate emergency becomes a dramatic accelerator of inequality. Councils have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that no residents are worse off while we are developing our response to the climate emergency. Fundamentally, carbon neutrality is not the end goal: the end goal is a thriving, resilient, and just society. No-one knows what new challenges or opportunities will arise between now and 2030, and while the target of carbon neutrality is a powerful mechanism to keep us on track, we must not lose sight of where we need to get to beyond that. 


Peter is the Carbon Neutral Cornwall Sector and Partnerships Lead at Cornwall Council.



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