Public sector responses to climate change
Tony Jackson describes recent research by spatial planners in the School of the Environment at the University of Dundee to look at the issues confronting Scottish councils in meeting their statutory obligations. The councils are providing a test-bed for the proposition that tackling climate change at a local level makes sense in terms of sustainable development.
Tony Jackson is a senior lecturer in town and regional planning at the University of Dundee’s School of the Environment, and co-author, with William Lynch, of the recent paper, Public Sector Responses to Climate Change: Evaluating the Role of Scottish Local Government in Implementing the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.
In 2011, Scottish local authorities assumed new duties under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. Council duties can be grouped into two action areas: firstly, mitigating the effects of climate change; secondly, adapting to effects that are inescapable.
UK Government policy has set low carbon parameters for energy and transport use, which currently account for more than 60% of Scottish greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Scottish Climate Change Act imposes targets for GHG reductions that are even more ambitious than those for the UK as a whole, requiring an 80% reduction in Scottish emissions by 2050, with an interim target of 42% by 2020. The Dundee analysis stresses the need to set these aims in the context of international treaties on climate change. The atmosphere is a common property resource. This makes it impossible to exclude countries unwilling to reduce their GHG emissions from any benefits created by those who agree to act: these countries are the so-called free-riders who allow others to bear the costs of action.
Demonstrating cost-effective action on climate change
So efforts by Scottish councils to hit ambitious targets will do little to ameliorate the effects of global warming either for Scotland or for the rest of the world, unless their actions can be shown to be sufficiently cost-effective to make similar ones attractive to others. For Scottish communities to gain any net benefits from tackling climate change, their local councils must find ways of showing the rest of the world that creating a low carbon economy is feasible and worthwhile, rather than expensive and difficult. In effect, Scottish local authorities have now embarked on a demonstration project to convince both their own constituents and observers around the world that tackling climate change makes sense in terms of sustainable development. If they can’t do this, they will simply encourage more free-riding behaviour elsewhere that will undermine their own efforts.
Focusing on consumption
The first stage for Scottish councils in meeting this challenge is to recognise they should focus their efforts on modifying the consumption of goods and services creating GHG emissions, not their production. Between 1990 and 2007, Scotland reduced its production of GHGs by just under 19%. However, over the same period, Scotland’s carbon footprint, which measures the GHG emissions embodied in its consumption of goods and services, rose by 14%. Known as carbon leakage, this phenomenon reflects the ability of any country to source its needs from other parts of the world, allowing its own economy to adopt lower carbon techniques while continuing to see its consumption of GHGs increase through imports.
Lowering the carbon profile for a country’s productive activities will do little to reduce global warming if its consumers simply switch to high carbon imports. So we need to change people’s behaviour in their capacity as consumers of GHG products. Scottish councils perform a key role in this respect. They can ensure that low carbon energy and fuel policies are implemented effectively and equitably, and make consumers of their services aware of the need to reduce their GHGs in other ways, such as waste recycling. They can also increase the resilience of local communities against the effects of climate change.
The Dundee paper considers how two Scottish local authorities, Fife and Highlands councils, are addressing these issues. Since 2007 all Scottish councils have been signed up to the Scottish Climate Change Declaration. This requires them to undertake many of the basic carbon auditing tasks that are now a statutory duty. Fife has a population of 360,000, making it Scotland’s third largest council. It launched a Carbon Emissions Reduction Plan in 2009 and is developing a range of tools to assess various policy options in delivering a lower carbon profile for its own in-house activities. The council’s own annual carbon footprint is around 110,000 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent. The energy demands of its buildings account for 70% of this, with fuel requirements of its vehicle fleet (13%) and energy needs of its infrastructure (12%) making up the bulk of the remainder.
The European Union Directive on Energy Efficiency of Building now requires all large public buildings to display an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). The Scottish Auditor-General has highlighted the poor overall energy efficiency of Scottish public buildings. Scottish councils have been given added reasons to implement energy efficiency measures following the introduction of the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme by the UK Government. This will require 27 of the 32 Scottish local authorities to purchase allowances and to publish their audited results.
Encouraging energy efficiency
In addition, Scottish councils will be in the forefront of measures to encourage domestic households to improve their energy efficiency. The Green Deal is targeted at housing in the public and private rented sectors suffering poor energy efficiency. It allows households to undertake approved energy improvements without up-front payments, the cost being met from part of the subsequent savings in energy bills. Scottish councils will be expected to take a pro-active role in delivering the Green Deal, running area-wide initiatives to raise the energy-efficiency of all eligible housing stock, including their own. Given the high proportion of Scottish households exposed to fuel poverty, home energy efficiency must be a key element in the mitigation of climate change.
Adapting to inescapable climate change
Highland Council was the first Scottish local authority to publish an adaptation action plan, which focuses on increasing the resilience of Highland communities to climate change. This council is easily Scotland’s largest by area, with many of its 220,000 residents located in isolated and vulnerable settlements. Climate change exposes them to unpredictable temperature fluctuations: one recent report pointed to reductions in the warm North Atlantic Drift which may result in much colder local sea temperatures in the west Highlands, seriously affecting land- and sea-based activities.
Highland Council’s adaptation plan identifies areas and services most at risk, and is supported by a set of twenty-four action statements identifying the responsible service and instituting regular review dates. A key element in such plans is management of land use through the local planning system. Scottish planning legislation now includes provision for all new developments to incorporate low-carbon design standards. Its second National Planning Framework provides the basis for delivering a statutory requirement imposed on the Scottish planning system in 2006 to promote sustainable development.
Screening policy for environmental impacts
These measures to promote low carbon developments have been reinforced by the introduction of the Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act in 2005, legislation explicitly designed by Scottish Ministers to make Scotland ‘a world leader’ in mainstreaming the environment in public policy-making. All Scottish public sector strategies, plans and programmes, whether voluntary or required by statute, are now obliged to be screened for environmental impacts. Those considered to have significant environmental effects must undertake a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) subject to public consultation before they can be adopted. To facilitate this requirement (which is much broader than equivalent legislation in the rest of the UK), the Scottish Government has created an electronic SEA Gateway, bringing public bodies such as councils whose plans must be assessed together with the statutory consultees that examine them.
Recent Scottish Government guidance on the use of SEA to promote low carbon land use development plans emphasises that these must be assessed for their contribution to GHG emissions; for their resilience in the face of climate change; and to identify any potential adverse effects in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Research has been commissioned by Scottish Ministers to explore the potential of environmental input-output techniques as a way of modelling the impact of new public sector strategies, plans and programmes on the climate, and to test out alternative scenarios aiming at choosing the optimal low carbon option.
Can local governance respond to climate change?
In conclusion, the Dundee paper points to the challenge climate change presents to current systems of local governance. By implementing such demanding legislation to tackle the problem, and by placing local authorities in the forefront of measures designed to promote a low carbon economy, the Scottish Government has made its own councils a test-bed for judging whether local governance is capable of responding to such challenges. Not only are local authorities well-placed to judge the needs of their own communities in this respect, they are also uniquely capable of modifying patterns of local consumption to promote low-carbon outcomes.
This is partly because many of their services are essential to local businesses and households, and partly because most are non-competitive in nature. This means that Scottish councils that promote low-carbon practices cannot readily be undermined by domestic competitors offering cheaper high-carbon alternatives, as might well happen if private sector businesses such as supermarkets attempted to emulate them. Scottish councils that succeed in transforming their service delivery from high to low carbon will not lose business to other councils that fail to emulate them. In the process, they can also demonstrate to local authorities around the world that climate change actions make sense.
Jackson T & Lynch W (2011) “Public sector responses to climate change: evaluating the role of local government the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009”, Commonwealth Journal of Local Governance, 8/9, 112-135, available via http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/ojs/index.php/cjlg/index
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