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How to accelerate local progress towards carbon neutrality

From passing a climate emergency motion to a meaningful programme of action

Simon Roberts OBE, Centre for Sustainable Energy, 18 March 2019

The roll-call of local authorities which have passed motions declaring a climate emergency grows day by day. What started in Bristol in November last year has been spreading like a benign virus through council chambers across the land, infecting the political discourse with new commitment to take urgent local action to cut carbon emissions rapidly to virtually zero.

So what needs to be done locally to turn this fresh political commitment into meaningful programmes of action and participation which genuinely accelerate local progress in cutting emissions?

Beyond a typical response

A typical response would be for a council to commission a swathe of analytical work detailing how the new emissions target embedded in the motion (typically carbon neutral by 2030) might be achieved locally – if at all. The analysts and consultants are called in and everyone waits to find out what the plan is.

This is not a useless exercise; it will tend to produce a list of technological choices (from building retrofit to EV take-up) which details the quantities in which they have to be adopted from now until 2030 to meet the target. But such an exercise misses the point.

The problem is not that we are unfamiliar with the actions which need to be taken to cut emissions such that we must have them spelled out to us (though perhaps some do still want this).

The problem is that the individuals, communities, businesses and organisations that together make up a local area are not yet doing these actions in sufficient quantities to cut emissions fast enough. There are reasons why this is currently the case and it is those ‘reasons’ which must be tackled to accelerate progress.

So another approach is required if these motions are to generate the meaningful and above all effective programmes of local action which they seek.

Stimulating the great acceleration

This approach involves treating the climate emergency motion as principally a call to accelerate the pace at which we’re collectively making all the changes we already know are required to cut emissions: to scale up, speed up and start up the things we know need to happen and know how to do. And to give up doing things which are incompatible with the local area becoming carbon neutral.

Immediately the focus becomes how to recruit the initiative-takers, enrol the key institutions and businesses, and reach beyond the council to build a partnership of the willing to contribute to the great acceleration in action to cut emissions sought by the motion.

Local authorities differ in the extent to which such wide-ranging and inclusive partnerships are already in place or emerging in their localities. But nurturing one is undoubtedly a necessary condition for success for the society-wide transformation inherent in achieving carbon neutrality.

Within such partnerships and more widely, individual and organisational commitments to contribute need to be concentrated quite specifically on what each individual or organisation is going to do next. Their ‘first next steps’ start from where they find themselves and seek to change something so more can be achieved. The steps must be possible without someone else taking action first (typically ‘national government’). Of course, there’s a need to look at what others with power need to do to make action by everyone easier, cheaper, quicker, better, more inclusive – and lobbying for these changes could be one of the first next steps.

We can’t outsource change

But to leave it there – a list of recommendations for ‘someone else’ to deliver – would be to outsource change. It would be to ignore the role we each have through our own direct actions in our lives and in our work and through the influence we can bring to bear on others. And it would be to underestimate how that role played well can lead to more systemic changes which would re-shape everyone’s actions.

Achieving carbon neutrality needs people and organisations to make huge changes in their own practices and choices and in how they seek to influence others. By doing so they can set new norms of behaviour, drive new initiatives, and secure wider participation. And they help to create the conditions in which others will find it easier to take action themselves and join in – including national politicians and regulators who design market rules and set funding priorities.

That’s why at a recent Bristol Green Capital Partnership event on ‘accelerating progress towards a carbon neutral Bristol’, one of the asks of the 180 attendees from across the city was to make and share their own commitments to ‘next step’ actions ‘at home’, ‘at work’ and ‘in our communities’.

We were putting into action the aphorism ‘If not us then whom? If not now, then when?’, much quoted by proposers of the climate emergency motions in different councils as they closed their debates and moved to a vote. Aside from a resonant rhetorical flourish, the aphorism provides a useful starting point for building the meaningful programme of action and participation required in response to the climate emergency: start with the willing and focus first on what they will commit to do next to accelerate progress.

Simon Roberts OBE is Chief Executive of the charity the Centre for Sustainable Energy and a non-executive director of Bristol Green Capital Partnership CIC.

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