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Last Updated: Friday, 4 May 2007, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Climate action 'needs devolution'
Matthew Spencer
Matthew Spencer

"Think global, act local" is the well-worn catchphrase to encourage people to cut their carbon emissions. But, as Matthew Spencer argues in this week's Green Room, there is little sign of local communities being given the powers they need in the battle against climate change.

Micro wind turbine (Image: PA)
We can only tackle this global problem if we make climate change a very local issue

It is a truism that all global climate change is local. Global carbon emission levels reflect the billions of small decisions taken on energy everyday in every town, village and city around the world.

It's therefore strange that so little attention has been paid to the role of local decision-making in tackling climate change.

Our politicians invest increasing amounts of political capital on international climate negotiations, and occasionally pay for national campaigns telling us "to do our bit", but they show little interest in supporting local decision-making on energy. This is because most of them don't believe it is necessary.

The dominant view, expressed clearly by the Stern Report, is that a combination of international diplomacy, carbon pricing and incentives for technology investment will save us.

Personal touch

But this approach misses one vital element: the personal motivation to act. You simply cannot regulate or innovate enough to tackle the problem without first stimulating a genuine desire to take action.

The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on mitigation confirms that social and behavioral issues are a major constraint on action to reduce carbon emissions.

Wind Farm (Getty Images)
The Scottish Executive has been successful in implementing ambitious policies to support renewable energy

There is powerful evidence of this from the last 10 years of UK climate policy, which demonstrates that many of us do not respond to pricing signals on energy efficiency, and that investment in renewable energy often does not translate into projects on the ground.

The reasons are well known: individual motivations and local concerns come into play, and often block low carbon behaviour on energy. As a result, millions of pounds are wasted every year by consumers who are too busy to take up energy saving measures.

It's also why the government's renewable targets will not be met as councils turn down many green energy schemes in favour of "local interests". We can only tackle this global problem if we make climate change a very local issue.

At the moment it is seen as a distant and conceptual problem that is frequently trumped by short-term local and individual interests when it comes to the small decisions we all make on travel, heating and electric power.

Devolution delivers

It is no coincidence that some of the strongest action on climate change has come from the places where the most power has been devolved to local decision makers.

The Scottish Executive has been successful in implementing ambitious policies to support renewable energy and is now leading the UK on wind power, with strong public backing.

The Mayor of London has used his planning power to shake up energy standards in new buildings, and is aiming for 60% cuts in carbon by 2025, 25 years ahead of the government's target.

In Denmark, famous for its success in renewables, the political culture of strong local government has been critical to the development of energy service companies.

A number of local councils in Britain use the powers they do have on planning to block renewable energy schemes

The widespread use of high-efficiency heat networks in the major cities has been led by municipally owned energy supply companies.

In the UK, the work of Woking and Merton councils on local energy is famous, but it is largely the result of strong-willed individuals with vision and determination who are prepared to work against the system to get things done.

There is a huge gulf between this "best practice" and the rest. In fact, in the absence of clear responsibilities on climate change, a number of local councils in Britain use the powers they do have on planning to block renewable energy schemes.

UK Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly has said she wants government to "get off the centralising tread mill", and wants climate change to be the first test of the new relationship between central and local government.

In a recent speech on climate change, Mrs Kelly encouraged local councils to "step up to it" and "seize it", but it is not clear what she thinks "it" would look like if it was seized, and she provided no significant new powers or duties to local councils on carbon reduction.

Ms Kelly should be working towards a major shift in responsibility from central to local government for tackling carbon emissions, rather than adopting a voluntary, incremental approach.

Power to the people

Car driving over a congestion charge road marking (Getty Images)
Councils need similar powers to the ones enjoyed by London's mayor

In return for new powers, councils should have their funding directly linked to achieving challenging carbon reduction targets.

The UK government's approach to climate change has been driven by outcomes, and largely ignores the services we need to live lower impact lives.

Local authorities could change this by offering a new national climate service, providing free independent advice to householders and businesses on energy saving and renewable energy.

The recent experience of DIY store B&Q's huge sales of micro-wind turbines suggests that some people's "willingness to pay" to tackle climate change is very high, and it is now the absence of clear authoritative advice, rather than financial incentives, that is often the biggest constraint to taking action.

The Mayor of London is setting up a "Green Concierge" service to meet this need, and to negotiate favourable deals on energy technology for citizens. We need such a service in every local authority area in the UK.

The UK government may not yet be convinced that supporting local decision-making is important in its own right, but if its renewed interest in devolution is translated into new powers and responsibilities for local government, we will greatly increase our capacity to respond to climate change.

The competition we have seen for political leadership on climate change at a national level will be repeated in local government if councillors are given greater clout.

Such leadership is essential if we are to close the gap between the gestures of big politics and what really happens on the ground.

Matthew Spencer is chief executive of Regen SW, the renewable energy agency for South West England

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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