Since the outbreak of coronavirus, subsequent lockdown measures and reduced travel has led to the greatest drop in carbon emissions in the last century. In May, CO2 emissions in New York City were down by 10%, and in Paris, by 72%. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the climate change crisis was becoming increasingly urgent and fraught – and it still is – but these numbers put in stark relief the impact that our behaviour as a global society has on the environment.
Conversation is abuzz on the local, national and international scale about how we can sustainably grow our economies and continue the environmental initiative as we begin to see the light of some degree of normalcy post-pandemic.
Initiatives have long been happening at the local authority level to collectively try and reduce the UK’s carbon footprint – from installing free solar panels to supporting the drive to electric vehicles.
There are a large number of “smaller” ways local government organisations can implement and promote green initiatives. This piece from Friends of the Earth suggests 33 – but as is explored in that article, it’s not just about the individual actions, it’s about overarching policy and strategy.
With that in mind, here are some key themes around environmental policy at local government level that will be significant in the remainder of 2020 and beyond.
Environmental skills gaps
According to the Local Government Association, 700,000 jobs could be created in the UK’s low-carbon and renewable energy market by 2030 – which could rise to more than 1.18 million by 2050. In addition, the UK has 40% of Europe’s wind resource. This is obviously a significant opportunity to stimulate growth in our economy, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, but there is a threat.
Low-carbon and renewable energy require a highly diverse skillset. In their report on skills for a green economy, the UK Government set four areas where diverse skills are needed – resource efficiency, low carbon industry, climate resilience, and managing natural assets. All are very different disciplines that require low, mid and high skilled workers including engineers, scientists, technicians, accountants, strategists and project managers. The Learning and Work Institute suggests that there could be a shortfall of 2.5 million highly skilled people in the UK by 2030 – with a potential impact on the economy of £120 billion.
Bringing into account the current social and economic climate, where a recent study suggests that lost school time during the pandemic could have a significant impact on the skills of our future workforce leading to a 65 year-long drain on the economy, the picture becomes even more bleak.
Local authorities are clearly the best placed to implement strategies to ensure skills are developed and jobs are created in their areas. This requires investment, carefully forged partnerships with local businesses, schools, colleges and universities to practice early and later intervention in terms of closing this skills gap to create a skilled workforce.
Energy is one of the most significant overheads for councils. In 2018, it was found that councils were spending over £863m every year with the Big Six energy companies. In addition to being able to reduce their area’s carbon footprint by investing in renewable and sustainable energy, councils could also further boost their local economy by investing in local, innovative energy companies. Backing local energy companies will encourage more disruption to the current energy market, which is monopolised by a handful of large companies who have been found to be overcharging consumers by as much as £1.7 billion a year between 2012 and 2015.
With backing from councils, local energy companies with sustainable approaches and practices could offer significant savings to consumers, all whilst collectively reducing the areas’ carbon footprint.
A report by Ron Woodley, Deputy Chair of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board, outlines the opportunity and the need for local government organisations to gear their procurement strategies towards natural and renewable energy. The report calls out a number of actions councils can take to improve their energy procurement strategy – including better monitoring and targeting, retrofitting and implementing energy efficiency measures on council properties, implementing energy performance contracts (EPCs) and putting the right standards and policies in place to ensure responsible energy procurement and consumption is a priority.
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