Over the last few years, the UK has made considerable efforts to tackle climate change. In 2019, the government enshrined its commitment to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 into national legislation.

By doing so, the UK became the first major economy to officiate its pledge to reduce carbon emissions. But while the goal may be a national one, councils across the UK have been taking the lead on turning this ambitious project into a reality. Local districts, counties and cities have been on the forefront of the fight against climate change. They have even committed  to tighter deadlines, often pledging to reach carbon neutrality by 2025 or 2030; decades before the national deadline.

Local councils are often associated with local policies, and rightly so. Mobility and traffic flow, public spaces and parks, housing, planning and regeneration — anything that is quintessential to a city’s identity is understandably in the hands of its administration.

But local councils can also play a vital role in tackling global, all-encompassing issues, such as racism or climate change. After all, real progress starts with small communities, such as neighbourhoods, towns and cities. As Bristol’s Energy, Transport and Green New Deal Lead Kye Dudd observes, “there are four areas of action: the Council and city as a whole have to act; we need to take the citizens with us; we need national action by influencing central Government to initiate the funding and legislation required; and finally, we need to drive international climate action as well.”

Councils for the climate

In light of the government’s commitment in 2019, many local governments have been implementing local initiatives and regulations. Across Britain and Northern Ireland, over 100 local governments have recently declared a climate crisis. The city of Bristol, for example, officially declared a climate emergency in November 2018. This has become the foundation for its transformative commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2030. Bristol  has been at the top of the class when it comes to tackling climate change, as the city was the UK’s first European Green Capital in 2015. Having reduced its carbon emissions by 71% since 2005, Bristol has since become the city with the lowest carbon footprint in the UK.

The city of Bristol has become an example in the UK’s pledge to reduce carbon emissions.

The cities of Leeds and Manchester have both drafted proposals to halve their carbon gas emissions by 2025. In July 2019, Manchester followed Bristol’s example in declaring a climate emergency and formulating a framework to reach carbon neutrality in 2038. The Oxford city council organised a Citizens’ Assembly to shape its strategy to cut emissions by 40% by the end of 2020. This plan goes hand in hand with the introduction of a zero-emission zone in the city centre.

“If we are serious about tackling waste, sustainable housing development, air quality – to name just a few of the issues that contribute to carbon emissions – we will need a real step-up in the resources available to local councils.”

Paul O’Brien, Chief Executive Association for Public Service Excellence

The city of Lancaster followed suit in making its climate-friendly commitments. But as Lancaster councillor and Climate Emergency UK coordinator Kevin Frea argues, local authorities can not stand alone in their efforts: “the majority of Local Authorities have declared a Climate Emergency, but they don’t have the resources, power or expertise to implement them on their own. Their local communities offer a wealth of knowledge, experience and willingness to support their efforts to reach carbon-zero, but they need to be included as partners and feel that their contribution is valued. There needs to be high quality engagement, both on and offline,  so that any plans are co-created and owned by residents, businesses and other public institutions.”

Climate Assembly: the public’s contribution to the debate

The fact that local councils are taking such considerable steps towards carbon neutrality makes a lot of sense. Climate change has been the topic on everyone’s minds for a while now. Citizens find it increasingly necessary to speak up and share their ideas on the right route to take. In November 2019, the UK government invited over 30,000 Britons to join a Citizens’ Assembly on the UK’s path to net-zero. For months, this Assembly was immersed in a range of different views and debates, “including how we travel, how we heat our homes and what we buy.The final report has formulated a few tangible recommendations for the government, including taxes on frequent flying, increased investment in wind and solar energy, and cheaper and greener buses and trains. This report will lay the groundwork for new policy-making on the path to net-zero.

The Climate Assembly brings citizens together to reflect, debate and advise on the path to take towards carbon neutrality.

In recent years, citizens have become increasingly more vocal. They are eager to take part in the debate, and not only during election times. Local governments are still exploring the benefits of resident engagement, but providing citizens with a platform and taking their ideas into account is a win-win in many ways. Public engagement builds trust and legitimacy, strengthens the well-being of your community and ensures that the city’s budgets are allocated wisely.

Public engagement is an excellent way for local councils to gauge resident opinions and set policy priorities. In the fight against climate change, this is no different. By tapping into the intelligence of the collective, local governments uncover a treasure trove of information. This leads to better, more accurate and more democratic decision-making. Grand Paris Sud, an intercommunal structure south of Paris, is a great example. The local council launched a public participation project to inspire a climate plan, stimulate cycling, and support sustainability projects.

But one of the most significant cases of citizens coming together for the climate was the Youth4Climate project. Let’s take a closer look.

Youth4Climate: gathering ideas to save the world

In early 2019, young people across the world took to the streets to demand quick and effective climate action. Major European cities were enthralled by weekly climate marches that kept protesters out of school and in every conversation.

As press attention and momentum for the Brussels marches grew, the organisers of Youth for Climate Belgium needed a way to channel the energy and ideas of the protesters. They launched an online platform that allowed people to share their ideas and initiatives. And as it turns out, the online discussions were just as passionate as those on the streets. In under three months, users posted over 1,700 ideas and 2,600 comments. On top of that, they voted over 32,000 times for the initiatives they wanted to support.

This input finally led to the formulation of 15 citizen priorities. These priorities were put to the vote once again, allowing the public to select the issues they believe should be tackled first. The final prioritisation became the basis of a final report that was offered to legislators to inspire their agenda-setting.

Curious to see how public engagement could kickstart your climate project? Get in touch with one of our participation experts.

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