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The importance of local authorities in tackling climate change

3 November 2021

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The importance of local authorities in tackling climate change

Reported by Ryan Francis, CSaP Intern and Jessica Foster, CSaP's Communications Coordinator

Ahead of COP26 - the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow - the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum hosted a panel discussion on the role of local authorities in tackling climate change. The online event was part of the second annual Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival.

The event was chaired by Emily Farnworth, Co-Director of the Centre for Climate Engagement, Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge. The panellists were: Dr Ethan D. Aines, Research Assistant at the Centre for Climate Engagement, Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge; Sheryl French, Assistant Director, Climate Change and Energy Services at Cambridgeshire County Council; and Cllr Rosy Moore, Executive Councillor for Climate Change at Cambridge City Council.

Cambridge City Council committed to becoming a net zero carbon city by 2030

Cllr Moore began the session explaining that in March 2021, Cambridge City Council revised their carbon strategy and committed to becoming a net zero carbon city by 2030. She said the local authority needs support from others to achieve this, including central government and local partners such as the County Council, the Combined Authority, businesses and residents. According to Cllr Moore, carbon emissions in Cambridge have decreased by over a third over the last 14 years. Interestingly, she explained this reduction is mainly due to the decarbonisation of electricity and the increased use of renewables at the national level, rather than at the local level. She suggested that to continue cutting emissions will require major changes to how people within Cambridgeshire live, work and travel.

Think globally, act locally

Cambridge Zero produced a new risk assessment which fed into the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Commission on Climate report. Dr Aines explained that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region could experience up to 50% more rainfall in winters, and 60% less rainfall in the summer. He suggested flooding was especially problematic for Cambridgeshire: the county is one of the flattest in Britain and much of Fenland is already below sea level. Furthermore, Dr Aines explained that the highest temperature ever recorded in Britain was recorded in 2019 at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden – a blistering 38.7°C. He said without adaptation action at the local level, these seasonal extremes, which could become the norm by 2050, could be highly disruptive to our daily lives.

Throughout the panel session, tackling climate change was discussed in terms of mitigation and adaptation. In this context, mitigation seeks to reduce the severity of climate change in the future, by taking serious action to cut carbon emissions as much as possible. Adaptation refers to action taken to respond to and alleviate the negative effects of climate change. Ms French emphasised that a key mitigator of carbon emissions in Cambridgeshire is retrofitting old buildings, which are poorly insulated and heated by oil or gas. She revealed how work is already underway in communities. For example, Swaffham Prior, a village in East Cambridgeshire, is going to be taken off oil and onto renewables, using ground source and air source heat pumps, plus solar PV.

The challenges facing local authorities

Ms French explained that one of the challenges facing local authorities is convincing communities to embrace change and new technologies, to help transition to renewables. Cllr Moore added that funding is a huge challenge for local councils, following “10 years of austerity plus the pandemic”. She explained there are 50,000 homes in Cambridge that require insulation and retrofitting, which would cost £2.56 billion. Dr Aines suggested local authorities need further devolved powers from central government to help communicate climate risks. However, and more optimistically, Cllr Moore stressed that these challenges can be turned into “huge growth opportunities”. For example, she explained that while retrofitting homes would be costly, it would expand the green economy, create more high-quality jobs, and help tackle skill shortages. She also cautioned that we needed to ensure a just transition.

What can be done?

Dr Aines recommended that local governments should be helping to inspire and empower communities to take individual action. He suggested this can be achieved by making resources accessible and available on local websites. For example, he explained limiting the number of paved driveways and gardens, and instead increasing areas of land that can drain more rapidly would reduce the risk of flooding at the individual property level. He also applauded the region’s local authorities for having ambitious climate change strategies. Ms French closed the discussion by highlighting the need for stakeholders – including various local authorities, businesses, and the community - to collaborate and share best practice.

Photo by Dorin Seremet on Unsplash


Jessica Foster

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Ryan Francis

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge