Councils declaring climate emergency: what next?

Scientists make it clear - we're facing a climate emergency

On 8th October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a vital report on the state of climate science. They warned that if the planet warmed by 1.5C there would be some devastating consequences, such as the loss of most coral reefs, and increased extreme weather such as heatwaves and floods. Yet the consequences of allowing 2C warming would be truly catastrophic. Given that the planet is currently heading for 3-4C warming, keeping to 1.5C requires a radical shift across across energy, land, industrial, urban and other systems to reduce emissions, unprecedented in history for its speed. 

On 29th October, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, set out his budget. It did not mention climate change. Since then, thanks to a movement of people from all across the UK, climate change has been steadily climbing the political agenda at all levels of government.

In November 2018, major cities Bristol and Manchester both passed motions that declared a 'climate emergency' and set targets aiming to be carbon neutral by 2030 and 2038 respectively. Their decisions have since been echoed by councils across the country, with over 100 councils passing climate emergency motions so far. On 1st May 2019, the UK Parliament followed the lead of these local councils, unanimously approving a non-binding motion to declare a climate emergency and calling on the government to increase its ambition to adopt more ambitious targets for reaching net zero emissions.

List of councils who have declared a climate emergency


Resources: Get your local council to declare a Climate Emergency

Resources: What Next? Climate action at the local authority level

What can we hope for from Climate Emergency motions? And what next?

We are used to politicians proceeding with 'business as usual' in the face of increasingly desperate warnings from scientists. So local councils adopting a more reality-based approach is heartening. Many of these motions have been brought by Green Party councillors, but importantly, they have generally depended on cross-party support. In Conservative-led Scarborough Borough Council, campaigners said "if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere". In Cornwall, where a motion was brought by a Lib Dem councillor, amended by a Labour councillor to strengthen it, and after a two hour debate to a packed public gallery, councillors from different parties voted almost unanimously to support the amended motion.

The largest authority to vote to declare a climate emergency is the London Assembly, who have called on the Mayor to declare a Climate Emergency and for him to put together a plan with specific actions needed for London to be carbon neutral by 2030. This has been accepted by Sadiq Khan, but with no additional commitments so far.

Are Climate Emergency motions just paying lip service to the radical action needed? This is of greatest concern where some motions have been amended to remove specific targets and dates. But in all these councils, campaigners' continued efforts will be crucial in turning abstract targets into reality. Local action will still face central government policy that is often far from supportive of radical climate action, for example the continuing effective ban on new onshore wind energy in England, and severe budget cuts.

But councils must be held to account for planning decisions. In the same meeting that they voted to declare a Climate Emergency, Oxford City Council voted against supporting a major road-building project, the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, a strong statement of commitment. In North Somerset, councillors who voted through a climate emergency motion will be deciding whether to approve the expansion of Bristol airport to a level where the emissions would be greater than the rest of the local authority put together. Manchester City Council excluded the airport from local climate targets despite the fact that Manchester Airport is majority owned by the councils of Greater Manchester and they are currently planning to spend £50 million on a new airport car park.

Are the targets achievable? Public support will be vital, and of course national policies will still make a big difference. One of the smaller authorities so far is Machynlleth in Wales, where the Centre for Alternative Technology have been working for years on what 'zero carbon' would look like in the UK, as set out in their Zero Carbon Britain reports. 

Campaigning for your council to pass a climate emergency motion

Why not try and get it on there? Talk to local groups, and sympathetic councillors, and start a petition. There's a Campaign Guide to read, and further resources at the bottom of this page.

What should a climate emergency motion look like? Generally they should:
  • use the words 'climate emergency' ;
  • set a target date to reduce their local climate impacts (generally 2030)
  • provide for a working group to report within a short timescale on immediate and longer term actions to be taken;
  • plan to engage with a cross section of the community.

Some Climate Emergency motions are relatively brief - this suggested text draws on some which are more detailed.

What next? Citizens assemblies and deliberative democracy

If your local council has already passed a climate emergency motion, you may be wondering what you can do next to make sure this results in ambitious action in your community. One option is to campaign for the council to convene a citizens assembly to involve the wider population in this process.

The Republic of Ireland has already led the way by convening a citizens assembly to deliberate on options for climate action, with overwhelmingly positive outcomes. Oxford City Council has been the first UK public authority to announce plans to follow suit. Oxford’s citizens assembly will be tasked with assisting the City Council in its final decisions around the promotion and adoption of carbon abatement measures and targets for Oxford and for the council itself. 

As the Green Alliance has argued, citizens assemblies have the potential to demonstrate that there is a real political mandate for politicians across the UK to act on climate change. Including a wide cross-section of the community in the debate at the local level can send a strong message to politicians in Westminster, reinforcing calls for a national citizens assembly from groups like Extinction Rebellion and others. Ensuring that local people have a voice in the decision-making process can also promote widespread public support for climate action.