Both Covid and climate are global policy challenges, but the policy response will be shaped by uneven impacts across geographies. This can drive a wedge between central and local policy, leaving imbalances in political incentives, priorities and power. Net zero policy will need a solid foundation to prevent a Covid-style fracture.
Our national Covid consensus collapsed first by UK nation, and then along English regions. What began in March as a four-nation response saw Wales and Scotland splinter in June with more cautious exit strategies and divergent public health messaging. England’s regions then split as the erratic arrival of second waves, and differing industrial structures of England’s regions drove varying health and economic costs. Local leaders, like Andy Burnham pushed for greater powers and support from Whitehall with Sadiq Khan in London pushing for a stricter national response.
This caused a growing undercurrent of political geography to spill into mainstream politics. This is a warning to climate policy, which could delay or accelerate progress to net zero. As London enters its climate action week amidst a second lockdown policymakers need to be mindful of three trends that could see similar fracture climate consensus.
First, central government spending to recover from Covid-19 and ‘level-up’ will be concentrated in certain places, not everyone will benefit. The government has decided that its solution to levelling-up its new northern seats and to decarbonisation will be through large-scale infrastructure. The £160m Build Back Greener promises 2000 jobs but these will be in areas with existing expertise like the Carbon Capture and Storage Cluster on Teesside. Capital intensive recovery will leave behind areas focused on jobs intensive services like tourism or hospitality.
Second, the unemployment crisis could drive some regions to prioritise jobs over our climate objectives. Cumbria County Council recently voted to approve the UK’s first new coal mine in 30 years. The case for supporting the scheme rested on its promise of investment and 500 new, skilled jobs. Local authorities don’t have a statutory duty on climate in planning – their immediate priority is their economy, even if that means higher emissions. With soaring numbers out of work, we could see more areas prioritise jobs at any cost. Emissions, like Covid infections don’t stop at council boundaries, isolated actions can undermine coordination on a national goal.
If these incentives slow greening, the political demographics of cities or university towns could spur climate action. Although three-quarters of local authorities have declared climate emergencies, the scale of their plans and how they measure emissions vary greatly. Some of the most developed local climate strategies are in Labour-led, remain-voting cities like Bristol, with its new £4m climate emergency package. Regions with more socially conservative voters, or with politically important but polluting industries, incentives for local leaders might slow their climate response.
Whitehall needs to ensure that no region undercuts its legally binding net zero target, but should also recognise where local politics can push faster decarbonisation.”
To prevent a geographic breakdown on net zero from these three forces we need a better balance between central and local government than we saw with Covid. Whitehall needs to ensure that no region undercuts its legally binding net zero target, but should also recognise where local politics can push faster decarbonisation.
Central government should set a high floor for net zero policy to prevent regions falling behind when local political incentives don’t align with climate action. Instead of Cumbria having to weigh up polluting investment versus no investment, Whitehall should be there to offer both carrots and sticks that push green growth. This could mean a statutory duty on net zero for local authorities, or conditioning post-Brexit regional funding on net zero plans. But as Lizzie Insall’s recent paper argued centrally-imposed responsibility must come with central resource.
The same local incentives that prevent progress in some areas can be engines for rapid climate action in others. Financial and political incentives are pushing locally owned and funded clean energy in Bristol, and carbon neutral building standards in London. Sadiq Khan is now calling for further powers for City Hall to drive London’s green recovery. Local leaders are better placed to collaborate with Local Enterprise Zones and catapults or local citizens like in Kendal’s Climate Citizen’s Jury. Local government should be empowered to design and deliver policy through locally set industrial and net zero strategies. Adaption plans are already local, so why not mitigation too?
The national Covid consensus collapsed as health and economic impacts shifted political incentives, net zero policy can’t follow the same faultline. With nuanced policy we can harness incentives where they benefit us all. Local contact tracing for example was able to reach 97 per cent of contacts compared to 60 per cent nationally. Central government meanwhile held both the carrot of support and stick of lockdown when needed. As with Covid we don’t hold all the answers to climate policy, key will be allowing local areas to innovate, whilst protecting against backsliding.