What We Can Learn About Climate Action from British Cities
Princess Street, Manchester, UK. Photo by Mangopear creative/Unsplash

As COP26 is in full swing in Glasgow, countries worldwide have failed to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement targets to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But cities are a bright spot. Many have developed climate action plans in line with – and often more ambitious than – the Paris targets, and are pushing higher levels of government to take bolder action. 

In the UK, cities have some of the world’s most ambitious targets, with many adopting goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2030. Their aspirations are backed by widespread public support, including from industry.

How did they get here? And what can other cities learn from their approach?

These are the questions we explored in the 1000 Cities Climate Action Best Practices in UK Cities report, which spotlights best practices from the work of 12 UK local governments, including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford and Somerset.

Our teams at the 1000 Cities Initiative, which aims to mobilize 1,000 cities in response to the climate crisis, and Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), a leading North American climate planning consultancy, created the report with the aim of sharing learnings with urban decision-makers looking to develop and implement bold climate action plans.

Four key best practices have enabled bold climate action in the UK:

Enabling the Community to Pave the Way

Deep community engagement has played a key role in enabling British cities to set ambitious targets, according to the report. All the cities featured created a community coalition that brought together members of the public, charities, businesses, climate experts and other stakeholders to advise the city on its climate strategy and, in some cases, to write it, monitor it or help implement it. The groups the cities created include citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries and public-private task forces. 

These efforts helped improve citizen engagement, increase public support for bold action, and highlight challenges and opportunities for climate action. Thanks to these groups, cities could also hit the ground running with climate actions that were pre-approved by local industry and community groups.

For example, in 2019, Oxford became the first city to create a citizens’ assembly on climate change. The assembly, which was livestreamed on social media, brought together a group representative of the city, including members from all major political parties, climate and social scientists, business sector representatives, and community organizations. These citizens identified a widespread desire for Oxford to be a leader in tackling the climate crisis, prompting the city to commit an additional £1,040,000 to its climate action efforts and laying the foundation for it to undertake the most ambitious smart grid trials in the UK.

Identifying Causes to Build Support

Many of the most successful actions and plans undertaken by the cities studied are those that jointly address the climate emergency alongside other needs or issues, such as energy poverty, air quality and health. For example, building retrofit programmed that improve energy efficiency in low-income households can help reduce energy bills and alleviate energy poverty. Similarly, measures to get cars off the road by improving transit, as well as walking and cycling infrastructure, can also improve air quality and health.

For example, Glasgow’s Affordable Warmth Programme provides energy retrofits and low-carbon heat to social housing for no or low cost, helping residents save £40-60 on monthly utility bills. In doing so, it responds to the need to reduce poverty alongside the need to reduce emissions from the city’s aging buildings. Similarly, Birmingham is creating a Clean Air Zone to reduce air pollution while cutting down on emissions by requiring cars to meet stringent GHG emissions standards in the city center. 

Accountability Tools to Stay on Track

British cities have also adopted mechanisms that hold them accountable to their climate pledge. These include climate lenses, carbon budgets and annual emissions reporting mechanisms. More than half of the cities featured in the report had implemented a “climate lens” to keep city council decisions aligned with their climate goals. Leeds, for example, requires all reports to its city council to provide details on the climate implications of proposed decisions. In addition, a report is presented at each council meeting outlining progress towards emissions reduction targets.

Leading cities are also taking their accountability to the next level by annually reporting on their emissions and creating carbon budgets, which set a cap on how much greenhouse gas they can emit – ever. Much like a financial budget, carbon budgets force cities to stay on track. If cities emit less or more in one year, that amount can be added to or deducted the budget from future years. In this way, carbon budgets force cities to consider emissions alongside investment decisions.   

Networking to Accelerate Action

All the cities featured in the report participated in climate action networks. These helped them accelerate local climate action, filling in gaps where support from higher levels of government or expertise may be lacking. Participating cities benefit by testing new and innovative GHG emissions reduction approaches, sharing tips for implementation efforts, boosting their local and international profiles, encouraging one another to increase their levels of ambition, and more.

For example, Manchester is establishing a program to share learnings from its Climate Emergency Framework and bottom-up governance structure for climate action with cities across the EU. Similarly, Liverpool is one of three European cities participating in the URBAN GreenUP project, an initiative exploring how nature-based solutions – like enhanced soils, green roofs and planting trees that maximize cooling – can mitigate climate change, while improving air quality and water management.

These topics will be further explored at an SSG-hosted summit in Glasgow during COP26, Cities Taking Rapid Climate Action Now, which aims to hone city-scale climate action implementation.

To learn more about the best practices above, as well as the other findings of the project, download the complete 1000 Cities Climate Action Best Practices in UK Cities report. The project was funded by the Rothschild Foundation, a UK-based charitable trust focused on the arts and humanities, the environment, and social welfare.

This article was originally posted on the Sustainability Solutions Group website.

Alia Dharssi is a Consultant at Sustainability Solutions Group.

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