You are viewing : Home » LOCAL COUNCILS UPDATE (view all editions) » 2022 Editions » January 2022

Climate Emergency

So, your council has declared a climate emergency… What does that mean, and what next?

The act of declaring a climate emergency shows that your council acknowledges that a climate emergency exists and that it extends to its locality. The first such declaration by a local council was made in December 2016. Since then, over 1,900 local councils in 34 countries have made climate emergency declarations (as of June 2021). Populations covered by local government authorities that have declared a climate emergency amount to over one billion citizens. Numbers are increasing all the time.

Having made a declaration, the next step for the declaring council is to set its priorities to address climate change activities in its local area. This will vary according to the circumstances of each council. By making a declaration, the declaring authority acknowledges that climate change (or global warming) exists and that the measures taken up to this point are not enough to limit the changes it is bringing about. The decision to make a declaration emphasises the need to devise and advocate measures that try and stop human-caused global warming. Declarations are being made at different levels, for example by national governments or by regional or local councils, and they vary in the depth and detail of their guidelines.

The world is getting warmer

Gaseous emissions from human activities on our planet are adding to the natural greenhouse effect, or the way the Earth’s atmosphere traps some of the energy from the Sun – hence the term global warming. Our activities, both industrial and domestic, such as burning coal, oil and natural gas, are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which is the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Carbon-absorbing forests are also being cut down, which makes the problem worse because the trees are no longer removing carbon from the atmosphere. CO2 levels are now at critical levels in terms of our ability to limit global warming to below +2°C, the upper limit of future global warming agreed in 2010 by parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), relative to pre-industrial levels.This was confirmed with the Paris Agreement of 2015, and further measures were agreed recently at COP26 in Glasgow.

So this is our challenge, and we all have a part to play in meeting it: post-COP26 analysis being undertaken at the time of writing suggests that the pledges made are still falling short of the UNFCCC upper target limit on global warming, and that greater commitments and more carbon reduction activities are needed.

The risk is real already

Higher temperatures and more extreme weather events are in our futures and we’re seeing evidence of this already, with early indications of major changes in food production conditions and increases in the number of casualties worldwide from floods, storms, heatwaves and droughts. This is because climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather. Increasingly, we are seeing the impacts of the climate emergency close to home in the form of the more frequent occurrence of events such as heatwaves, heavy rainfall, flooding and moorland fires. Few now doubt the reality of what faces us or that action must be taken urgently to protect the population against the worst ravages of climate change.

An active process

The basis of a Climate Emergency Healthcheck and Audit process is to support local councils with climate emergency work in their communities. I always recommend appointing a climate emergency champion, or champions, within local councils – ideally to deliver political support and operational support from the executive team. Choosing these champions is a critical step. Seniority is important, as is their ability to influence and command the respect of colleagues. This is because a key part of this role, as well as advising, is to hold the council to account on its decision-making. Declaring a climate emergency must not be a passive process once the declaration is made.

In preparing a climate emergency action plan, a local council should recognise that many desired projects will not be within its gift, either entirely or partially. This may be because assets are owned by others or for other reasons; I recommend working in partnership to deliver objectives.

Communities will also look to their local council for thought leadership, advice and guidance. It is important that councils are ready to provide this and have dissemination methods ready to use. It is vital too that council representatives are out and about in their communities, working with partners and higher authorities, educating and advocating for change.

Therefore, in devising a climate emergency action plan, a council can usefully consider its carbon control activities under four headings:

  • Managing the assets and activities it controls in accordance with best practice and publicising this exemplar work;
  • Being considered a thought leader in its local area and a source of information on carbon control issues in its community, educating and advocating on carbon control best practice;
  • Showing local leadership, devising, championing and implementing local community activities in support of best practice;
  • Advocating strongly for carbon control best practice measures with other authorities and with other partners to work together to support delivery.

A knowledge base for the asking

The breadth and depth of knowledge available in our local communities never ceases to amaze me, and much of it is ready to harness for the asking. LGRC has prepared its Climate Emergency Healthcheck and Audit based on what is practical and realistic for councils to do.

A skills audit can generate substantial results to help inform the choice of the best people locally to lead on and champion climate emergency priorities. In-depth experience and expertise specifically in climate emergency planning is not commonly available; look instead for transferable skills from related areas. For example, before my own involvement in the local council sector, my experience came from a professional degree in agri-environmental chemistry and a first career working as an environmental consultant in waste management and recycling in the restoration and management of UK inland waterways. In your community you will find a wealth of applicable skills in related areas that can be practically applied.

Other benefits from decarbonisation

As well as minimising the impacts of global warming, a decarbonised world is also a more attractive world: healthier, cleaner, fairer and more resilient. Low-carbon initiatives are the building blocks of every local climate action plan and there are endless opportunities to emulate the ideas of neighbours.

Understanding the different terminologies

In the worldwide quest to reduce carbon emissions, many countries have declared an aim of becoming carbon-neutral by a given date. The strategy of the UK government sets out how this country will reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. To reach this target by the middle of the century, considerable changes will need to take place well before that date, and ideally before 2030.

Achieving carbon neutrality involves balancing emissions of CO2 with its removal from the atmosphere (often through carbon offsetting). Net zero carbon gives emphasis to making changes to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest volumes possible – and using offsetting to remove carbon as a last resort.

Although “carbon emissions” and similar terms are generally used, a carbon footprint also includes other greenhouse gases, expressed in terms of their CO2 equivalence. As such, the term “carbon emissions” is often used to talk about all greenhouse gas emissions. The term “climate neutral” reflects the broader inclusion of other greenhouse gases in climate change, even if CO2 is the most abundant.

Benchmarking and monitoring progress

The UK government publishes data county by county, so anyone can monitor annual progress in their area and also see what the carbon reduction priorities are locally. LGRC uses this information in its work with clients.

There are also a number of web-based calculators of personal carbon footprints freely available, enabling us as individuals to benchmark and monitor our own personal impact and our ongoing progress. Using one of these calculators, live for a volunteer in front of an audience, is a great way to get a discussion under way.

A critical friend

A Climate Emergency Healthcheck and Audit can serve to:

  • highlight progress made to date;
  • act as a critical friend;
  • indicate potential for further developments and activity;
  • support the local council as a leader of local activity and a contributor/partner in activity over a wider geographic area.

Where LGRC undertakes this work, we always offer an annual assessment of progress to ensure that projects are kept alive, support further developments and keep priorities on track.

David McKnight BSc (Hons), MCIPR, FCIM is General Manager, Local Government Resource Centre Associates (LGRC). Founded in 2013, LGRC is an independent professional services provider focused on the town, parish and community council sector. LGRC works to bring best practice to every aspect of a local council’s activities – from community strategy and planning through to service delivery and council governance and administration. It provides consultancy services, training, locum and interim staff, and outsourcing capabilities. LGRC staff and associates are a mixture of skilled local council practitioners and functional specialists. They have a wide range of experience and a significant record of successful client assignments. For more information, visit or email

Written by David McKnight BSc (Hons), MCIPR, FCIM, General Manager, Local Government Resource Centre Associates
As appeared in Clerks & Councils Direct, January 2022
© CommuniCorp