What does a climate emergency mean for you?

In May this year, the House of Commons passed a motion declaring a climate emergency, following a wave of protests organised by Extinction Rebellion. This was followed by dozens of local councils declaring their own Climate Emergencies, alongside other countries including Canada and France. But what does a climate emergency actually mean in practice?

A climate emergency is, in many respects, just a soundbite. In the case of the Commons’ declaration, it meant nothing; no legislation was passed, no climate emissions reductions targets set, nothing legally binding was placed on the UK. The then Environment Secretary Michael Gove said in unambiguous terms that there was a climate emergency, but he did not back Labour’s motion to declare a Climate Emergency, presumably because that was the wrong kind of emergency. The UK government has now legislated for net zero emissions by 2050, but this was separate from the declaration. 

Across the UK, the Welsh and Scottish Governments have declared climate emergencies, as have a large number of councils. Most of these councils have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030, but some have not set any specific date, such as Oxford City Council and Powys County Council.

It is not altogether clear what ‘carbon neutrality’ means in practice for a local council. Is it just the council’s own activities, heating its buildings and using up paper for instance, which are included, or do they plan carbon neutrality for their entire jurisdiction? How Frome Town Council is meant to replace coal, oil and gas with renewables for its residents remains a mystery.  

It is also not that clear what this will mean for developers looking to get approval for their projects.

In many cases, councils have used climate emergencies as a weapon to fight projects they were always opposed to. For instance, Heathrow and Gatwick expansion has been resisted by numerous councils in the flight paths, who have said that expansion would be ‘incompatible’ with their declarations of a climate emergency. Councils opposed to the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway and the housing and commercial developments that would be built alongside it, have likewise used a climate emergency as part of their opposition strategies.

In practical terms, most councils have organised work groups, committees or commissioned reports to come up with recommendations on how they can de-carbonise their localities. Among councils that declared emergencies earlier this year, many will receive their reports back towards the end of this year, with specific recommendations for achieving their targets.

When looking at new developments in the context of the climate emergency, councils will be looking for homes to be built with environmentally sustainability in mind from the ground up. York City Council for instance, is looking to make sustainable transport, such as walking, cycling and public transport, the default choice of residents, rather than being seen as a poor alternative to cars. York is also looking to install solar panels, heat pumps and other energy efficiency measures in council houses and would look favourably on similar technology being installed in new housing developments.

Stroud District Council in Gloucestershire declared in 2015 it was the first council in Europe to become carbon neutral, which was achieved through intensive energy efficiency measures, renewable energy installations, carbon offsetting, switching to sustainable transport options and a successful waste management scheme. It is likely that soon all councils will go the way of Stroud, requiring developers to design their master plans around sustainable transport as the default option, including green spaces and building renewable and energy efficiency measures into designs from the start, rather than as an afterthought.

Joseph Wright - Account Executive