Is local government the future of climate change mitigation?

My time at SmartKlub is primarily spent on a research project to support the CAPE project in activating citizens to take lead on energy projects. This weeks blog explores the work that motivated and inspired me to begin this project.

The 2010 World Development Report on Climate Change included a background paper from the late Elinor Ostrom, the first and only woman to date to win the Nobel Prize in economics. This paper called for all levels of government to address climate change in their own way; not ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ but every option all at once.

Elinor Ostrom

Ostrom’s point was that while the challenge of climate change demands broad executive action from central government, smaller more local branches are able to try out new innovative approaches, keeping those that work and discarding any that fail.

This is a nice idea, a rational solution from one of the greatest thinkers in the field of governance, however the question remains, can it work in practice? So seven years on from Ostorm’s paper, how are the UK’s local authorities getting on?

The answer, not so well, at least according to a 2015 paper by a team researchers from De Mont Fort and Cambridge universities. The paper compares two similar local authorities in the North West of England, one with climate mitigation policies, the other without. The results indicate that councils have minimal influence over the energy produced and consumed within their area, government policies, the private sector and domestic trends far outstrip their impact.

Before we get too carried away, let’s remember that this is just one paper, considering just two towns. However, there are some lessons to be learned here, the most important being; local authorities just don’t use all that much energy. While improving energy efficiency in local authority builds is important, it just doesn’t save much carbon.

But before we opine another good idea failing in practice, we should think about the resource that local authorities do have. While they do not control any of the larger sectors I mentioned above, they do have considerable influence over all of them. What this paper tells us is not that local authorities are a damp squib in the fight against climate change, but rather that we need to change our thinking about how they are used. We should think of local authorities less as a force for change and more a catalyst for change; empowering, uniting and informing others as they build a future that’s carbon free. My research with SmartKlub explores the potential for local authorities to inhabit this role.