Why local governance is important on the path to net zero

As the British Academy publishes a new report on governance and net zero, one of its fellows advising the project, Professor Andy Jordan, reflects on the role of local leadership
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By Andy Jordan

26 Feb 2024

The energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, recently celebrated official statistics that showed the UK is the "first country in the G20 to halve its carbon emissions". Her remarks came amid a flurry of criticism directed at both the government – for changes to policies intended to reduce emissions – and to the opposition for the scaling back of its pledges around green investment. All of this against a backdrop of alarming climate trends: 2023 marked the hottest year on record.

In its most recent progress report, the independent Climate Change Committee declared that half of the emissions reduction required for the UK to meet its 2030 target is “at risk, or has insufficient plans”, and that its confidence in the UK government meeting this target “remains low”. Evidently there is plenty of work to be done in this, the critical decade for climate action.

In the run up to the next general election, there will rightly be much discussion of what the UK government must do. But what about the role played by local governance? The government’s net-zero strategy itself outlined that councils can influence 80% of emissions from their areas, directly influence over a third of emissions and have direct responsibility for 3-5% of emissions. Yet there is too little discussion on how this promise can be realised.

A new British Academy report emphasises how much the relationship between elected leaders and publics matters, and nowhere else is this truer than at the local level. It means finding better ways to involve people in decision making, as well as more effectively articulating the benefits and opportunities presented by green innovations.

The benefits of this approach can be seen by contrasting two Passivhaus projects in Scotland. Both projects employed state-of-the-art low-carbon technology.  However, the project built in 2011, where residents were supported with technical help, troubleshooting and knowledge sharing, yielded positive results: a shift in habits, upskilling (through operating the low-carbon system) and the creation of an eco-community.

Fast forward to 2015 and in the second project, by contrast, residents did not feel supported by the developers, who restricted their control over their low-carbon home technologies. This led to high levels of reported resident dissatisfaction, frustration with the lack of communication, and much higher energy use than projected.

"As people around the UK grapple with the cost-of-living crisis, ignoring these issues puts vulnerable groups at risk and acts as a barrier to the successful rollout of policy changes on net zero"

Take the 2021 heat and buildings strategy as another example. It outlined policy mechanisms to improve home energy-efficiency ratings through rapidly scaling up low-carbon heat supply chains. However, the strategy has been widely criticised for failing to address how people in affordable housing should engage with it. As people around the UK grapple with the cost-of-living crisis, ignoring these issues puts vulnerable groups at risk and acts as a barrier to the successful rollout of policy changes on net zero.

These lessons apply to new technologies that are often touted as the key to delivering net zero, such as heat pumps: their success also depends on the public’s support. To be effective, all technological solutions must be designed with the people who will use or be affected by them.

The British Academy’s report drives home the importance of governance. But there is a lot more to do to identify practical insights for those accountable for local and national net-zero commitments to fulfil public expectations, which is the second phase of our work on this programme. We know that the problems they face are complex and connected: institutions at all levels passing the buck; people, communities and groups feeling excluded; a chronic lack of resources; ongoing concerns around justice and fairness.  

While it is right to celebrate the progress we’ve made on reducing carbon emissions, the next part of the race to zero is likely to be much harder.  It is only when society makes a concerted attempt to improve governance at all levels that communities and business can have confidence in net-zero policy decisions and how they will be implemented. 

Andy Jordan is professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and a fellow of the British Academy

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