Cllr Tom Hayes writes about what you can do once your council has declared a climate emergency

This blog post was originally published in September 2019

So, you’ve declared a Climate Emergency. What do you do now?

When your Council passes a motion, it gives political importance to the issue at hand. By passing a motion declaring a climate emergency, your council is not just confirming that business as usual cannot continue—it’s saying exceptional action is needed.

But, how do you turn your political commitment into action? How can you move from a climate emergency declaration to strategy development to implementation of actions? How do you meet expectations of grass roots campaigners? How do you find the money to tackle the climate emergency when your budget has suffered savage Tory cuts for the last nine years?

These questions are bouncing around many town halls up and down the country. It may be reassuring to know that you aren’t alone in trying to figure out the answers and, more than ever, Labour councils and councillors are uniting to support each other in this area. No one council has all the answers, but there isn’t a climate emergency problem to which Labour local government doesn’t have a solution rooted in social justice.

There are many, many different emergency declarations. The following steps are suggested steps to take, based on the experience of Oxford City Council.

  • Be clear about your scope and priorities – are you aiming to reduce your council’s carbon emissions, or the emissions in your wider borough area? And what will your priorities in trying to meet this goal? This needs to be determined at the very start.
  • Understand your emissions today to take action and set targets – before you decide your carbon reduction target, you need to look at what your emissions are now so you can set realistic and measurable targets, based on clear evidence.  Many councils have set a date of becoming Carbon Neutral by 2030 through their climate emergency motion, but this figure may have been decided based on IPCC targets as opposed to whether it is achievable locally.
  • What powers do you have and what can you influence? As well as getting to grips with setting realistic targets, what you can do will vary by the type of authority you are – so making sure that what you set out to achieve is within the parameters of the powers you have, particularly if you’re in a two tier area. For example, Oxford is a district council so there are some areas where we have to work with Tory-run Oxfordshire County Council, particularly on our Zero Emissions Zone. As a district council we are a licensing authority, so we have worked with the Black Cab trade to introduce ambitions regulations so that all of our Hackney Cabs will be fully zero emission capable by 2025. And we are influencing Oxfordshire County Council, the transport authority, on wider aspects of our Zero Emissions Zone plan, resulting in the requirement for buses to be Euro 6 over a larger area and the prohibition of polluting vehicles from the city centre from 2020.
  • Who are your partners?  Oxford City Council is responsible for 1% of the city’s overall total emissions, so we have to galvanise partners to act. Our own emergency declaration and emissions reduction plan is helping to create a positive example of leadership, but the biggest impact arises from our existing networks and partnerships, which we’re renewing in order to be more ambitious. We’ve worked with partners in the private, third and public sectors across the city to set a shared vision and targets for a greener, zero carbon Oxford. It was through partnership working that BMW’s MINI plant in Oxford came to host one of the UK’s largest roof-mounted solar farms in the UK, generating enough electricity to power 850 homes.
  • You’re not starting from scratch – The foundations to tackle climate change have already been laid over many years. Your own council is likely to have done a lot of work in this area already, and you’ll have organisations who campaign locally on environmental issues. Many of your businesses will be making changes to operate in a more environmentally friendly way, and many of your residents will be making individual choices to live more sustainably. Find out what they are doing and harness it to achieve your own goals.
  • Engage with the public on this agenda – declaring a climate emergency will build a profile for this agenda, so it will be important to talk about the good work of your council. Telling your story on climate change will build trust with your residents, but you’ll also have to explain your limitations – for example what powers your council has to take action and where the national government has to act.  As Cabinet Member for a Zero Carbon Oxford I attend a lot of meetings with grassroots groups which has not only given me an opportunity to talk about Oxford’s positive work in this area, but it’s also enabled me to learn a lot about the environmental agenda that I’ve taken back to the council.

In Oxford we’ve chosen to hold a Citizen’s Assembly to make sure that we truly take into account the views of every type of residents – not just those who shout the loudest when it comes to climate change and the environment.  This won’t be appropriate for every area, but in Oxford we feel as though it is the right way forward to bring every viewpoint into our decision making to build a majority for action.  Other approaches that can be taken include creating a Scrutiny Committee standing panel, a dedicated cross-party working group, or a panel of experts and councillors.

I hope this has been a useful guide for any council who has declared a climate emergency to help you take the practical steps to be successful in reducing your carbon emissions and becoming a greener community. No one council has all the solutions, but as Labour councillors we should be looking to learn from and support one another, and I’m eager to learn about what others have been doing.

Our councils are not waiting for Westminster to get its act together – instead, we’re forging partnerships and making decisions to in place greener and healthier communities. Trapped in the downward spiral of Brexit and austerity, and staring a climate emergency in the face, our communities are crying out for solutions, and Labour town and county halls are providing them.