It is a widespread ask from environmental groups, including Sustainability First, that as we emerge from the current crisis the focus must be on a green recovery. Ahead of the Petersburg Climate Dialogue recently Britain's Business Secretary Alok Sharma said that "the world must work together, as it has to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, to support a green and resilient recovery, which leaves no one behind".
The question though is what does that mean in practice? This is redolent of the question that a report out today, written by the New Policy Institute (NPI) and published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), seeks to address for local authorities: "So you've declared a climate emergency: what next?". Sustainability First was pleased to be able to contribute to the report.
There are good reasons for arguing that a green recovery needs to be locally driven. That is the best way of ensuring the recovery provides local jobs – through a focus on energy efficiency retrofits in particular - and can build on the community spirit that we have seen emerging through this crisis. Thinking about re-designing transport to facilitate social distancing is another priority that has to be taken forward at a local level. Many cities across Europe are looking to build on that "breath of fresh air" that reduced car traffic has delivered, to commit to a longer-term shift to low carbon transport, prioritising cycle routes for example. This was reflected in Grant Shapps' speech at the weekend.
In looking at how councils should respond to the climate challenge the NPI report starts with the science (now a more accepted approach?). The IPCC report highlights the damaging impacts that even a 1.5 degree rise in temperature could have and articulates how it is the cumulative carbon emissions that matters. Which points to the imperative for councils to act early – to focus on doing as much as they can now rather than worrying unduly about the end date. The Committee on Climate Change set out last year the steps that need to be taken for the UK to achieve net zero. As the NPI report sets out, this provides councils with a ready-made agenda. The energy efficiency of our buildings; decarbonisation of electricity, heat and transport; waste management and tree planting all need to be tackled.
Last week the Committee on Climate Change reiterated the importance of these steps including a focus on those that are more labour-intensive in the short term as a response to the current crisis.
Councils have a critical part to play both in terms of their own activities and in facilitating change across their local area. The NPI report makes clear that their plans need to clearly articulate what they are doing in each space.
There is much that councils can do but central governments should ensure that they have the funding and powers that they need and that there is scope for those authorities with higher ambition to pave the way. The proposal in the Future Homes Standard to prevent English local authorities from setting more stretching targets is a barrier for those who want to move further and faster. Ofgem's RIIO2 price-control framework needs to more clearly support regional and local ambitions. With their clear geographic footprint, the central facilitation role of the electricity distribution networks in a locally-driven green recovery must be properly recognised.
Many local authorities have committed to setting up citizens assemblies to help them develop their response to the climate emergency. As I have highlighted elsewhere, there is scope to learn from the French citizen's assembly that explored in depth how the proposals that they had been developing for tackling climate change were impacted by covid-19. One of their recommendations was for mini climate assemblies across the country to identify local opportunities for a green recovery.
While there is a growing consensus about the need for a green recovery, as we start to debate what that means in practice there needs to be an increased focus on the local agenda. Local authorities should look at the NPI report and use that to help them develop their thinking. And national governments need to look at how to support that local effort through the stimulus funding they put in place and ensuring local authorities have the wider powers they need to drive a local green recovery.