In December 2020 the UK demonstrated its leadership in tackling climate change, announcing its new target to ‘reduce the UK’s emissions by at least 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels’ [1]. This target is hoped to accelerate the UK’s aim to ‘bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050’ [2]. The Environmental Journal argues that local authorities are integral to achieving net-zero [3].

What does the net-zero target mean for Local Authorities?

300 out of 404 District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils have declared a Climate Emergency [4]. In doing so, a local authority is acknowledging it ‘needs to act on the causes and impacts of climate change’ [5]. There are many changes local authorities can take to begin steps towards net zero, however, the existing levers within local authorities are not sufficient on their own.

According to Nigel Riglar, Director of Environment and Community Services at South Gloucestershire Council:

“The only way to achieve this is to empower and resource local authorities, working in partnerships with business, communities, partners and supply chains, to deliver local solutions across our places. Environment, economy, health and wellbeing, inclusivity and addressing the climate crisis are all inextricably linked, so action has to take place at the local level now if we are to meet the net-zero target.” [3]

What are the barriers and aids for local authorities?

Chaitanya Kumar, Head of Environment and Green Transition, New Economics Foundation, spoke at The Cleaner Greener Local Government conference, September 2020. He explained that while many local authorities have made the political commitment to meet net zero, “they lack the resources or knowledge to meet their ambitious pledges” [6].

Chaitanya referenced the One Planet Cities market research which identifies the best potential enablers for local authorities to meet the net zero target. The research shows that staff awareness and skills are key. Chaitanya argued that there is currently “no concerted exercise or programme on a national level to upskill and provide support for local government in the understanding and application of climate solutions” [6].

Indeed, local authorities have identified similar needs. Placing funding as central to realising these targets, with practical action planning tools coming in just below. Chaitanya expresses the importance of not standardising tools but instead allowing flexibility for local authorities to implement action in the best way for their area [6].

What Approaches are Local Authorities Taking?

The New Economics Foundation has done research on the approaches being adopted by local authorities. It stresses the need for a system of organisations, not just be one group of council officials, to make an impactful difference.

Chaitanya talked us through 4 examples of how groups have come together:

  • Independent groups, such as the Manchester Climate Change Agency, act as independent voices on climate change in the city, they bring together a diverse range of organisations and actors from across the city in order to inspire and inform place-based climate action
  • Expert-led groups, such as The London Climate Change Partnership (LCCP) are often created by local or national governments in order to advise decision-making surrounding climate change within the public-sector. Their work is therefore closely tied to these bodies, both in terms of funding and research
  • Networks of third sector organisations operate within many UK cities (e.g. Derby Climate Coalition). Bringing together a diverse range of environmental groups, these networks help to facilitate action at a local, regional and national scale, often raising funds through donations and fundraising events
  • Climate governance beyond the city, such as Bright Green Business, utilise existing networks to maximise engagement. This archetype acknowledges the work of regional and national climate partnerships and their relevance to place-based climate action. ​[6]

What Solutions are Local Authorities Pursuing?

A new local action coalition of local government, research and environmental organisations have collated the most common solutions to the climate and ecological crisis that local authorities are pursuing:

Investment in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure​. This can primarily be broken down into housing, transport and renewable energy. However, this also includes waste management systems that aim for zero waste to landfill or incineration and systems that capture the biogas of composted food waste.

Supporting reskilling, retraining and research for a net-zero well-adapted economy. As Chaitanya discussed previously, for local authorities to be able to implement net zero solutions they need to be provided with the training and skills.

Upgrading homes to ensure they are fit for the future​. As well as retrofitting homes, Friends of the Earth says that we must require renewable energy such as solar thermal, PV (electricity from the energy of the sun), or heat pumps in new developments [7]. Furthermore, they argue that councils should enforce minimum energy efficiency standards in both the private rented sector and for new builds.

Making it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely. London is aiming for 80% of journeys to be by foot, bike or public transport by 2041 compared to the 60% currently. Additionally, Greater Manchester has committed to a ten-year plan to build 75 miles of cycle routes similar to those found in Holland and Denmark. Friends of the Earth also suggest requiring the use of electric buses and the rollout of EV charging facilities for when people are unable to walk or cycle [7].

Accelerating tree planting, peatland restoration, green spaces and other green infrastructure​. This is not only good for public wellbeing but will make a positive difference in carbon emissions.

Innovating at the local level through business models and partnerships. There is now government guidance to help local authorities engage with energy suppliers to identify households that would benefit from energy efficiency improvements. [7]

What Steps are Local Authorities Calling for from the National Government?

While it is important that local authorities enable a sustainable future, to achieve a net-zero goal they will need more powers and resources from the government. The local action coalition of local government, research, and environmental organisations have put together a blueprint for how the Government can accelerate climate action and build a green recovery from coronavirus at the local level [8]. It maps out how government can support local authorities to scale up action:

Align strategy with the net zero climate goal

  • Map areas across the UK at particular risk of business closures and jobs losses in the transition to net zero. Develop targeted support to enable a fair transition for these areas to avoid the risk of left-behind communities.

Provide resources to grow the zero and low carbon economy

  • Ensure that the Shared Prosperity Fund is designed to support zero and low carbon economic development, including provision for place-based funding. Through linking Local Industrial Strategies, local authorities can create a joined-up response.
  • Enable flexibility in the business rates system, so that councils can support local decarbonisation and the installation of renewable energy generation measures on business premises.
  • Support the rapid development of digital infrastructure, including funding for local authorities to roll out digital solutions that can support local business resilience, for example by developments to reduce unnecessary commuting or business travel.

Catalyse low carbon skills development

  • Ensure local authorities have adequate skilled staff and access to training to know how to help local zero and low carbon economic development.
  • Enable councils to use the National Skills Fund, the National Retraining Scheme, and the Apprenticeship Levy at a local level to retrain staff [8]

Most local authorities have called a climate emergency, but these words need to become actions. It will require a joint effort from central government and local governments collectively.


[1] 2021. UK enshrines new target in law to slash emissions by 78% by 2035. [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

[2] 2019. UK becomes first major economy to pass net-zero emissions law [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

[3] Neill, P. 2020. Local authorities are key to achieving net-zero. [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

[4] 2020. List of councils who have declared a climate emergency [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

[5] 2019. You’ve declared a Climate Emergency… what next? [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

[6] Kumar, C. 2020. The Cleaner Greener Local Government conference.

[7] 2019. 33 Actions Local Authorities Can Take on Climate Change. [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

[8] 2021. A blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local level. [online] [Accessed 30/04/21]

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300 out of 404 District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils have declared a Climate Emergency [4]. In doing so, a local authority is acknowledging it ‘needs to act on the causes and impacts of climate change’. There are many changes local authorities can take to begin steps towards net zero,

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