Yes to a duty, no to local carbon budgets: my take on the CCC report

So the Committee on Climate Change has published its report on the role of local authorities in addressing climate change. This is significant, as it has previously only addressed things from a central government perspective, and was only asked (by the Government) to consider the role of local government, after a fair bit of lobbying by Friends of the Earth. The Committee’s views are significant as it exists to advise government on how to achieve the UK’s statutory carbon budget.

I only have time today to make two points. One for, one against.

First, the report has to be welcomed for making it clear that not acting on carbon is not an option. The Committee is clearly concerned that “at the moment there is no requirement for councils to set targets and implement measures to reduce emissions within their area. And the scale of ambition is generally low given limited funding and lack of obligation”. As a result, it recommends “the introduction of a statutory duty for local authorities to develop and implement carbon plans, and that national funding to support such programmes is increased”. It’s a shame that the Committee has had to say this, but they’re absolutely right. The Green Alliance report, Is Localism Delivering for Climate Change? made clear in October 2011 that many local authorities’ commitment to address carbon reduction has waned recently.

Statutory duties are, I admit, a mixed blessing. They jar with me as a Localist, but I have sometimes argued for local authorities to have a single statutory duty: to ensure the future viability of their area. Everything else should flow from this; it seems to get to the point of local governance which, for me, is all about place. I could argue that a statutory duty on carbon is a proxy for this, but in practice, it’s more straightforward than that: acting on carbon reduction cannot be optional for any place. Localism cannot be about whether or not my place does anything to reduce emissions; it should be about deciding how. So I don’t have a problem with a statutory duty – but let’s avoid the classic centralist model, where local plans are sent to a central template and signed off by civil servants.

Which brings me neatly to my second point. The Committee comes out against the introduction of local carbon budgets. Their rationale is that this would not be appropriate “given the multiple drivers of emissions, many of which are beyond their control”. If this is the case, then why do councils have ambitions about job creation or waste reduction? Pretty much everything a council does that could be broadly described as ‘community leadership’ or ‘place shaping’ (ie everything except simple service delivery) is subject to forces “beyond their control”. Why should this be a barrier on carbon? Further to this, based on this logic, the UK should not have a national carbon budget; success, after all, is dependent on factors which the national government can’t fully control.

I’ve written plenty about local carbon budgets in the past, and still see the case for them as straightforward: we have a national carbon budget; our emissions are the sum total of emissions in each locality; so it makes sense for each local authority area to have a local carbon budget – that way, there is a clear role for each place in contributing to the national commitment to reduce carbon. The LGA has argued that this would be ‘centrally-imposed, top-down’ target setting; I see it as taking responsibility, arguably subsidiarity.

So I would argue for local carbon budgets as the mechanism for ensuring both that the UK meets its commitments and that each local authority is able to be ambitious about their own place. I’m disappointed that the Committee on Climate Change hasn’t taken this view, but pleased that what they do suggest looks like progress. I hope the Government listens.

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One thought on “Yes to a duty, no to local carbon budgets: my take on the CCC report

  1. Hi Warren 🙂 Similar to you, the stat duty/localism conflict is an unwelcome one to grapple with. Your idea of a general stat duty is intriguing. It would obviously be open to various interpretations at local level (a good thing, not something to be ‘ironed out’). However, the evidence of action is, at best, mixed at the moment so I would not be averse to a specific duty of the kind suggested by CCC.

    My more general point is what would such a statutory duty actually achieve on the ground? It would move climate change mitigation up the local authority priority list, out of ‘discretionary’ into ‘obligatory’, with increased council funding likely coming as a result. But beyond a bit of extra money, what would actually get done on the ground? Would we be back to similar level of commitment we saw with NI186? I would argue that while, on paper, NI186 councils were strongly committed to climate change, the action they followed up with was patchy to say the least (variety of reasons for this, not apportioning blame at all).

    Duties, targets etc are part of the mix and can help to shoehorn issues into a crowded agenda. As NI186 did a few years ago, perhaps a similar gee-up from Whitehall is necessary to reverse the trends identified in last year’s Green Alliance report. But that only gets you so far – you need to win the political argument on the ground for reducing emissions or else a statutory duty of any kind will be met with the minimum required action and likely weak implementation of any local carbon plan that emerges.

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