by Alex Massie8 minute read
Logically enough, many local authorities have decided that the first step is to develop a strategy to address the emergency that they have declared. However, they face a number of pitfalls and challenges when doing so, and it is easy to get lost in detail whilst missing some big, but not immediately obvious, issues.
I’m now involved in preparing climate emergency strategies for five local authorities. Based on my experience to date, here are the five issues I think it is easiest for authorities to miss in their eagerness to get on and start reducing emissions.
1. Scope of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The obvious implication of declaring a climate emergency is that you should try rapidly to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – but which emissions? To start with, you need to understand the three categories of emissions an individual or organisation can be responsible for:
- Scope 1: Direct emissions from your activities (e.g. burning fossil fuels for heat)
- Scope 2: Emissions associated with the energy you use (e.g. gas burnt in a power station that supplies your electricity)
- Scope 3: Emissions associated with the things you consume (e.g. the GHG emissions involved in making and delivering the new laptops you bought) regardless of where they were emitted
Understandably, the focus tends to be on Scope 1 and Scope 2 – the things you most directly control. However, my discussions with authorities suggest that Scope 3 emissions can dwarf the others. Of course, reducing Scope 1 and Scope 2 is important, but that shouldn’t mean ignoring Scope 3, although there is less clarity about the carbon footprint of products, and it’s harder to control these emissions.
More challenging still for an authority is the question of whether to focus on:
- Its own operations;
- Its operations and those of its contractors; or
- All emissions in its jurisdiction.
At first glance it would appear reasonable to focus on your own operations – to “get your own house in order”. It focuses on matters the authority directly controls, and helps display leadership. However, authorities (and other organisations) can exercise far wider influence, whether through supply chain management or through communications with organisations or the public.
It’s important that authorities use their influence, because an authority’s own emissions are typically less than 1% of the total emissions in their area. Any influence they can bring to bear on local emissions could therefore have many times the impact of getting their house in order.
2. Net-zero or zero carbon?
Language matters. Some councils are declaring an ambition to be “zero carbon”, while others are aiming for “net-zero carbon” (or “carbon neutral”) status. It is important to be clear about what your goals are.
Net-zero carbon means that an organisation or region sequesters (is responsible for removing) as much CO2e as it emits, so that the two figures are offset. This allows emissions to continue for some operations. By contrast, zero carbon implies no GHG emissions at all. The latter is clearly much more challenging, at least as long as councils’ staff have the inconvenient habit of breathing! It is important to be clear about your aims, so that all stakeholders understand what will count as success.
If net zero is the more realistic aim, important questions follow about offsetting: how much will you rely on offsets? What approaches are acceptable? And how do you verify the amount of carbon absorption for which you claim credit?
Imagine that an authority decides to build a major solar array, feeding in the power to the grid, thereby reducing the demand for carbon-intense energy from other sources. This, they claim, offsets all their other CO2e emitting activities. At present, this will reduce CO2e emissions, but the actual reduction could be claimed by:
- The organisation that built the array;
- Those who switch to the renewable energy; and/or
- The corporation who decommissions the fossil-fuel plant because demand is no-longer there.
Furthermore, as the grid gets cleaner, the solar array offsets less carbon-intensive electricity and so the benefit declines over time. This serves to illustrate how difficult it is to determine the value of offset activities. Fortunately, the Government has quality criteria that can be used to decide whether a proposed offset is meaningful:
- Avoidance of leakage;
- Avoidance of double counting; and
- Ex-post timing;
More could be added – for example, there should be a maximum timeframe over which the offset takes effect. These criteria make offsetting a challenge, but rigour is needed if offsetting is to be treated as equivalent to reducing direct emissions.
3. Is it just about Climate?
“Climate crisis” has an alliterative ring, and the concept has taken hold rapidly in recent months. It is also quantifiable, by reference to the number of parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere. But the atmosphere is only one facet of our living, interconnected, self-regulating ecosystem. We have also entered a period of ecological breakdown, of which the climate is but one facet. Reducing GHG emissions will not fully address the much more complex ecosystem collapse we are beginning to witness.
Determining the local actions to tackle ecosystem collapse is harder, and there might be quite a bit of overlap with actions to address climate change, but when considering actions to reduce emissions it is worth also assessing the potential for wider benefits across issues such as air quality or sustainable development. In some cases, adjusting an action could increase co-benefits – while in others, there may be an avoidable risk that actions to address the climate emergency could contribute to other environmental problems.
The sad truth is that the changes in our climate appear to lag behind our actions by between 10 and 40 years. Major changes in climate are already locked in due to emissions released in previous decades, and we need to be prepared to adapt to them. The problem here is that we cannot quantify adaptation, and it can tell a negative story – whereas neat charts showing CO2e reductions are more positive. However, authorities have a responsibility to prepare for the future, and should not focus solely on mitigation.
Adaptation can seem speculative and hard to quantify, but it is necessary and the earlier we start, the more effective it will be. As with any mitigation, adaptation should be considered with a view to its wider environmental impact. Nature-based solutions have much to offer in terms of ecological restoration and carbon sequestration, and can be preferable to technological options.
5. The Big Ask
Finally, but to my mind most importantly, is the recognition that by declaring a climate emergency, we are asking major questions of ourselves, each other and our society. In particular, declaring a climate emergency means recognising that the way that we have been living for generations has been incredibly damaging, that many of our ingrained assumptions do not hold true, and that we ourselves are the cause of this crisis. We are also stating that the science shows our situation to be sufficiently bleak that action is very urgent.
Stop and reflect on this. By declaring a climate emergency, we are questioning many of our foundational beliefs, and the security of our future existence.
This questioning is extremely challenging. An authority declaring a climate emergency, therefore, has a responsibility to consider how to communicate this decision, and what support staff and citizens may need in engaging with these issues. This may seem like a soft, nice to have, add-on, but it is fundamental to the success of any climate emergency strategy. Without support to engage with these immensely challenging issues, people may switch off – and if they do, there will be no meaningful action.
Citizens’ assemblies have been suggested as a method to achieve engagement, and they can certainly help. Whether it be achieved through this or an alternative approach, it requires time and energy to build support for climate actions that are likely to profoundly affect how we live and work.
Declaring a climate emergency asks some of the biggest questions possible. It requires facing up to the loss already experienced in our present, and an even more challenging future. It requires a shift in awareness, without which action will not flow. These cultural and social elements must therefore be placed at the heart of any meaningful strategy.
We face major, unknown challenges. Yet, there is an energy in society around these issues that we have never seen before, reflected in the spread of climate emergency declarations. There is hope to be found here – in individuals and organisations playing their part. Developing a strategy is a vital part of this, for local authorities and other organisations; and it is critical that these strategies reach beyond the immediately obvious responses and encompass all of the measures those declaring emergencies are in a position to implement.
A version of this article first appeared on www.localgov.co.uk.
Featured image: Takver (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.