The role of locally determined contributions in tackling climate change

13 September 2023

The role of locally determined contributions in tackling climate change

Reported by Patrick McAlary, Policy Assistant, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

In July 2023, Pippa Heylings, Liberal Democrat Candidate for South Cambridgeshire, and Sheryl French, Assistant Director, Climate Change and Energy Services, Cambridgeshire County Council, addressed the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum to discuss the role that Locally Determined Contributions can play in tackling climate change.

Locally Determined Contributions (LDCs)

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are national climate action plans including targets and policies to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement (2015). Locally Determined Contributions (LDCs) comprise local authority action plans, including climate mitigation and adaptation commitments and contributions, that contribute towards the national net zero target - aiming to achieve a similar framework on a smaller, more local, scale. The UK Government cannot deliver on its commitments unless it works with Local Authorities (LAs), which are best placed to work with local communities to support the transition to net zero. It is critical that there is action to empower LAs to deliver at a local level. Chris Skidmore’s Independent Review of Net Zero recommended that the Government should introduce a statutory duty for LAs to take account of the UK’s net zero targets, based on a clear framework of local roles and responsibilities, although more clarity is needed on what this means in practice.

Multi-Level Coordination

It was noted that, compared to international partners, local government advocacy in the UK was non-existent in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow. As such, there was a real effort undertaken by the Local Government Association to make sure that there was a team ready to negotiate and, through engagement with international advocacy groups such as the Local Government and Municipals Authorities, to ensure that text on multi-level co-ordination was included in the Glasgow Climate Pact. However, the question remained as to what this meant on the ground. There is no framework for coordination between national and local action and the latter is often fragmented, siloed, and not working as effectively as it could. In 2012, the UK Government removed the mandate for LAs to report on climate action and LAs have been stripped of the resources to drive change. Despite this, 98% of local councils have declared a climate emergency, but the overriding question of how this translates into action remains. A participant outlined three key elements:

  1. The Institutional framework

The UK Net Zero Strategy highlighted the need for greater co-ordination between the local and national level and recommended the creation of a Local Net Zero Forum, which was set up in July 2022, that allows local council officers to meet with civil servants from different Government departments. However, this does not facilitate coordination between ministers and politicians who are shaping policy at a local level. As such, the Local Government Association established the Climate Change Task Group, which is a cross-party forum that works with Government and engages with ministers across departments.

  1. Business case

Local Government Association research suggests that devolving the net zero strategy through local and regional governments (rather than implementing it at the national sectoral level) could save £140bn and bring in £400bn of returns and wider benefits.

  1. Scale and ambition

LDCs provide an opportunity not simply to align to national targets, but to ratchet ambition at a local level. COP28 in Dubai will see the first Global Stocktake and it is expected that the gap between what countries are doing at a national sectoral level and at the local level will be significant: now is the time to think about the role of LDCs in supporting the transition to net zero.

The Cambridgeshire Context

The Government has a target of net zero by 2050, but across Cambridgeshire there is divergence, and this creates confusion for individuals and businesses: it was noted that work needs to be undertaken to align targets. Part of this involves creating a shared language so that different stakeholders are on the same page. Of course, setting targets is much easier than implementing change. Working from national carbon footprint data that has a two-year lag, Cambridgeshire emitted 6.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021—this is only marginally smaller than 2019 emissions and emissions are expected to be greater for 2022. This is despite widespread acknowledgement of the climate and biodiversity crises: the question returns to impact. The importance of carbon budgets was emphasised; without carbon budgets it is difficult to plan ahead and implement strategies for reducing carbon emissions that take local circumstances into account. For instance, it will be hard to reduce carbon use in the Fenlands due to the nature of land use, while South Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire have a greater need for transport than the city. A report by the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange found that construction, waste, and land use were difficult areas to reduce carbon emissions, and carbon reduction trade-offs may need to be identified. LDCs can help different parts of the county to collaborate on easy wins and provide a framework for jointly scaling up work on housing, retrofitting, infrastructure, and begin a conversation about establishing building blocks for dealing with 'hard to treat’ emissions.

In 2021, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s Independent Climate Commission (CPICC) outlined that the Combined Authority had until 2032 until it had used its fair share of carbon emissions: for this to become a reality attention must be paid to the non-technical barriers to delivering net zero. One such barrier is how to fund the transition: the scale of investment needed is £700M per annum and the public sector cannot do this alone. It is important that the appropriate financing frameworks are established to involve investors in the process. The issue of consumptive emissions must also be acknowledged. NDCs are based on territorial (that is, operational) emissions and this does not include things we buy and consume. Any LDC should deliver into the NDC framework, but, as a county that has relatively higher emissions per capita than other parts of the UK, any Cambridgeshire LDC should include consumptive emissions. It was suggested that LDCs could help provide a workable framework for delivery.

Image by S N Pattenden on Unsplash

Patrick McAlary

Institute for Government (IfG)