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300 Councils have Declared a State of Climate Emergency – But For Many It’s Just Rhetoric

Claire Hamlett reports on the factors contributing to the lack of progress by local councils to reduce carbon emissions in their areas, despite their pledges to do so

Photo: Ivelin Radkov/Alamy

300 Councils have Declared a State of Climate EmergencyBut For Many It’s Just Rhetoric

Claire Hamlett reports on the factors contributing to the lack of progress by local councils to reduce carbon emissions in their areas, despite their pledges to do so

Since 2019, 300 councils in the UK have declared a climate emergency. While some have done more than others to try to live up to their bold words, there remains an overall distinct lack of urgency in their actions.

Recent research by Friends of the Earth and Platform found that councils are still investing billions of pounds in the fossil fuel industry via their pension funds – with Greater Manchester, Strathclyde, West Yorkshire, and the West Midlands accounting for nearly 25% of all investments. All except Strathclyde have declared a climate emergency but, tellingly, none have set a date for going carbon-neutral.

A number of councils have also prematurely scrapped their trials of pop-up cycle lanes without proper evidence after opposition from some drivers and, as a result, have had their active travel funding cut.

Progress on reducing councils’ direct emissions is slow or non-existent, in part, because many do not know their own carbon footprints, particularly those from their own buildings including social housing.

Areas where more positive action is being taken include tree-planting, increasing the number of electric buses, and implementing workplace parking levies. Yet, many councils may be undermining these and other efforts to reduce emissions.

According to a recent BBC survey, 37% of councils may be supporting policies that could increase carbon emissions in their areas, such as road-building and airport expansion.

This patchy climate action is indicative of a lack of leadership on the issue from the Government, prompting a recent call from Friends of the Earth for it to commit to measures which will help local authorities deliver on the UK’s climate commitments – such as making climate targets central to planning decisions, and scrapping the £27 billion road-building programme. 

Another area in which the Government is failing to provide councils with clear direction is food. The much-vaunted second part of the National Food Strategy, published in July, offered 14 recommendations for overhauling the UK’s food system to address public and planetary health. But the Government has since barely reacted to it. Furthermore, the latest report from the advisory Climate Change Committee (CCC) assessing the Government’s progress on reducing emissions noted that “there are signs of potential consumer willingness to shift towards less carbon-intensive diets in future, but this has not yet… been backed up by policy to support the change”.

Tackling emissions from food production is vital to addressing the climate crisis, with reductions in meat and dairy consumption being one of the key ways to achieve this. In the UK, agriculture accounts for 10% of national emissions, with more than half coming from livestock farming. Additionally, the livestock sector accounts for half of the UK’s emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says must be slashed to avoid climate catastrophe.

The cuts to meat and dairy consumption required nationally in the UK to make a difference is a matter of debate. The CCC recommends a 20% reduction by 2030, while the Government’s National Food Strategy calls for 30%. The Eating Better alliance of more than 60 civil society organisations is pushing for a 50% reduction by 2030. 

Without Government guidance on this issue, local councils are left to decide for themselves how much effort to make on reducing meat and dairy. And so far, very few have done anything at all.

Nudging By Example

At a meeting of Alsager Town Council in early August, its councillors voted on a motion tabled by Jane Smith, the UK’s first Animal Welfare Party councillor. Her proposal was modest: that plant-based food and refreshments be offered by default at council-hosted events, with attendees able to make written requests for alternatives in advance.

The proposal was voted down by seven to six, with one abstention, split largely along party lines. Smith and the Liberal Democrats were for the motion, while the Labour and Conservative councillors against.

“The kinds of events we’re talking about, we only really have one or two a year and we literally have coffee, tea, biscuits,” Smith told Byline Times. “In voting against it, councillors have said they don’t want even that to be plant-based. I find it unfathomable.”

Had the vote gone Smith’s way, Alsager would have joined only four councils that have embraced plant-based foods at council events: Lewisham, Faversham and Hythe, which have all committed to serving vegan options only; and Enfield, which has cut meat but not dairy from its catering. In addition, Leeds City Council plans to offer more vegan meals and have two meat-free days a week in its 182 primary schools.

“The role of councils is to help familiarise the public with more sustainable options that they otherwise may not have known at all,” Sabrina Ahmed, of the campaigns and policy team at the Vegan Society, told Byline Times. “And there’s no easier way to do that than implementing plant-based options on public sector menus, for example.”

The evidence indicates that providing plant-based options as the default is the most effective intervention – known as ‘nudging’ – for encouraging the consumption of plant-based foods. 

While the big emissions savings to be made from food is indeed beyond councils’ own meeting rooms, making their own events plant-based is, as Smith says, “a tiny first step”, and one of the simplest and cheapest among the range of actions councils can take to shrink their carbon footprints.

So why the low uptake?

Narratives Feeding Reluctance

Towns such as Alsager, in the dairy-producing county of Cheshire, may find that councillors are concerned about being perceived as ‘anti-farmer’, which is how Jane Smith thinks those in other political parties inaccurately paint her.

The narrative that calls to reduce meat amount to an attack on farmers has certainly taken hold in some parts of the media, with locally-produced meat and dairy being pushed as a better alternative. 

Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, considers ‘eat local’ to be a “misguided” response to the climate impacts of food – with what we eat being more important than where it comes from. But both the Soil Association and the Eating Better alliance argue that eating more plant protein and less meat is the only way to ensure that the remainder of meat can be produced ‘sustainably’. This would not only cut emissions, but as animal agriculture requires so much land, it would free up more space to be re-wilded, helping to capture and store carbon and boost biodiversity.

Another misconception causing a reluctance to embrace plant-based food, which Smith said she witnessed during the debate on her motion at Alsager Town Council, was that “plant-based by default is actually perceived as exclusive and excluding of people”. 

But Sabrina Ahmed argues that plant-based food “is something that we think to be quite inclusive” and “it’s suitable for people from many different religious backgrounds, for example”. She points out that vegans often “don’t receive adequate provisions in the public sector” and that “we often have people who are in hospitals and may get things like a jacket potato and beans every day”.

In addition, last January veganism became a protected philosophical belief under the 2010 Equality Act. “There’s now this imperative that the public sector take action on this issue,” she told Byline Times. “There’s a legal obligation on public sector authorities now to make sure that vegans are not directly or indirectly discriminated against.”

Both the Vegan Society and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have been actively trying to help councils to see why they should make a switch to plant-based catering and how to do it.

“We’ve had a lot of positive conversations with various different councils,” Ahmed said. “The councils that have gone ahead with it, we’re using them as case studies and speaking to the people involved in making that happen to try to pitch it to other councils and work cohesively in that regard. We are seeing some positive changes, but it is definitely a process and it is something that is taking time.”

While greater leadership from the Government could speed things up, it is clear to Jane Smith what it means for a council to have declared a climate emergency: “We put a line in the sand and say: from this moment on, all of our town council decisions have to be viewed through the lens of climate breakdown.”

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