Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly called on councils to take the lead in tackling climate change in April: "Local government can have a massive impact on climate change," she said. "It is up to local government to show it is ready to respond to the appetite for action on climate change already being demonstrated by individuals and communities."
She wants authorities to encourage local people to change their behaviour and help them reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Ms Kelly praised those authorities that have already begun to act and noted that many were well ahead of central government in both ambition and practical action, but these are the minority: "It is clear that although there has been significant action by some, there is more that local government can do," she said.
Climate change is rapidly rising up local authority agendas. Some 216 of the 350 English authorities have signed up to the Nottingham declaration which commits them to take action on climate change (see box ).Drivers for action
This level of activity is all the more remarkable given that local authorities have no statutory duty even to monitor CO2 emissions in their area, let alone take action to reduce them.
The Local Government Association’s Philip Mind said: "We’re in a really fast-moving game. Things have changed in the last year and public concern has grown - the Stern and IPCC reports and Al Gore’s film, they have all raised the profile of climate change. There are many local authorities that are up for this now. There is a real desire within local government to improve in this area."
The EST’s Christine Kinnear agrees: "We’re finding that authorities are engaging more and more with this agenda. One of the big drivers is community awareness - local people expect action."
Another factor behind the surge in interest is that local authorities will be at the sharp end when it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate change.
Shropshire’s decision to develop a climate change strategy followed a severe flooding event: "We saw the worst flooding in Shrewsbury for 20 years in 2000 and this helped get full political support from the councillors for a climate change strategy," said Steve Fowkes of Shropshire County Council.
In spite of this, most climate change action at the local level focuses on how to reduce emissions rather than how to adapt to the impacts.
Financial and reputational issues have also played a part. Soaring energy prices have encouraged authorities to look more closely at their own emissions and made it easier to justify investment in energy efficiency. Showing a lead on climate change is also an easy way to generate good publicity for an authority.
But translating this enthusiasm into action has proved more difficult. A survey for the Guardian newspaper earlier this year found that, in spite of the rhetoric, only a handful of authorities are taking concrete actions to reduce emissions in their areas.
Philip Mind insisted it is early days and urged patience. "Clearly there is going to be a lag between making a commitment and putting in place a strategy and action plans," he said.
Steve Waller of the Improvement and Development Agency (I&DeA), the man behind the Nottingham declaration, is also relaxed. "Around 200 authorities have signed the declaration and put their head above the parapet. What concerns me is the 150 other councils where there is no obvious commitment to climate change."
On the other hand, there are some that have made "spectacular" progress. The authorities leading the pack tend to be those like Kirklees and Leicester which have a long history of sustainable development programmes, or those like Nottingham, Woking and Cornwall that have a strong track record in managing energy.
Regardless of where they started from, Mr Waller identified political leadership and the enthusiasm of individual council officers as common characteristics of the leading authorities: "In all of the beacon authorities, you can identify individuals who have pushed things forward. It’s not just at the top of the organisation, it’s committed officers at all levels." But this can also be a weakness: when key individuals leave, authorities can lose momentum.
Beverley Draig of Eastleigh Council in Hampshire thinks political will is the main issue. "Things won’t happen unless there is a political drive. We have a dynamic leader of our council. You can have champions within council officers, but without political drive, it won’t happen."
Overcoming obstaclesThe fact that so few authorities have managed to move from aspiration to action suggests that other significant obstacles remain.
Not least of these is a chronic lack of resources. Developing a climate strategy takes officer time and implementing it can cost a lot of money. "Funding is a problem," said Philip Mind. "External sources are limited and schemes are small and fragmented." More authorities are chasing after the money earmarked for climate-related action.
The LGA has also complained of the "stop-start nature" of climate funding and wants the government to put in place a reliable, long-term system to support authorities that want to take action.
Another problem is that many authorities lack the skills and technical expertise to develop and implement climate strategies. This is a particular issue for smaller authorities, though some have got round the problem by joining together with neighbours to share the burden.
One of the main sources of technical support, the EST, was forced to scale back its work with local authorities last year when it found itself landed with an unanticipated £5 million tax bill (ENDS Report 379, p 11 ). As a result it has had to disband the local support teams which offered face-to-face advice to English authorities. In the absence of additional funding from central government to make up the loss, the EST will only be running a slimmed down version of the service next year.
But help is out there. The Beacon Council scheme run by the I&DeA identifies best practice and allows authorities to learn from the experience of leaders in the field. Two years ago sustainable energy was one of the key themes, and this year tackling climate change will be a focus. In March, the LGA launched an independent climate commission to examine local government’s progress on climate change and identify how best to provide support.
Larger authorities can also take advantage of the local authority carbon management programme, run by the Carbon Trust. This provides both technical and financial support to help authorities develop carbon management strategies for their own estates.
Since its launch in 2003, the Trust has worked with 141 authorities and has delivered emissions reductions of around 5,000 tonnes of CO2 per year in each council. But the scheme is demanding.
"We make sure that authorities understand what they are letting themselves in for before we start," explained Richard Rugg of the Carbon Trust. "We set challenging milestones which have to be delivered. There has to be the right level of buy-in. We expect a lot of change in a short period of time."
Authorities are expected to provide a project leader for at least two days a week and to put up around £250,000, which the Trust will match, for a rolling investment fund for energy efficiency. Money saved from measures paid for by the fund has to be ploughed back into further energy saving investments.
The programme then follows a standard process of determining baseline emissions, identifying savings opportunities and drawing up a detailed implementation plan with hard targets.
"The financial savings range hugely, but the reductions are dramatic. Authorities can save up to £20 million on their energy bills over the lifetime of the project. As a rule we are looking to save authorities well over £500,000 a year," said Mr Rugg.
One of the main factors behind the carbon management programme’s success is its focus on energy. Developing a comprehensive climate change strategy is more difficult in that it cuts across all areas of a council’s operations from service provision to engaging with the local community.
This requires buy-in from a wide range of council staff and contractors, all of whom have to be persuaded to adjust working practices. Internal opposition and inertia can be obstacles.
Climate change performance indicators
One of the biggest obstacles is that there is no statutory duty on authorities to address climate change. Inevitably councils focus their efforts and resources on the issues they have a duty to address. A requirement for authorities to monitor and reduce their emissions would remove many of the obstacles to action at a stroke.
"When they are told to do something, councils act," explained Steve Waller of I&DeA. "They have responded magnificently to the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA). They all hate it, but they have responded well."
The local government White Paper issued last autumn promised to include indicators for climate change in the new performance framework which will replace the CPA.
Out of the 200 indicators, there are expected to be just three, at most, devoted to climate change. Meanwhile, climate change may not feature at all among the 35 mandatory improvement targets agreed with Whitehall.
Nevertheless, Steve Waller thinks the presence of climate change indicators, combined with public concern, will be enough to spur authorities to action
"Just asking councils to report on greenhouse gases across their estate and community will push things forward," he said.
Other measures - the recent planning policy statement on climate change, the energy performance commitment and home information packs - will also focus local authority attention on the issue.
Working with communitiesEven among leading authorities, attention has mostly focused on reducing their own emissions rather than those of the local community. This is understandable as councils have direct control over their own operations.
Ruth Kelly wants authorities to encourage their communities to cut their emissions. One of the strengths of authorities is that they can work directly with businesses and households in their area to help them reduce emissions.
Regional climate change statistics issued last year showed a huge variation in emissions from local authority areas, with some emitting twice as much per capita as their neighbours (ENDS Report 383, pp 12-13 ).
But even though they are well placed to engage with local communities, councils only have a limited range of levers to influence behaviour. Many will therefore be nervous about area-wide emissions being included in their performance indicators.
Some authorities like Eastleigh and Richmond (see box ) are trying to influence their communities through a mix of awareness raising, offering incentives for microgeneration and energy efficiency, and penalising heavy emitters.
Some, like Woking and Shropshire, have set up energy service companies or partnerships to help deliver energy efficiency advice and shift to low-carbon energy sources. Others are setting demanding requirements for the energy efficiency of new developments.
Simply providing an alternative to the private car and improving public transport can help bring emissions down, as can improving recycling.
There is little doubt that climate change is rising up the local authority agenda. Meeting the government’s targets to cut emissions will increasingly require reductions from households and transport - two areas where authorities are well placed to influence behaviour.
While some authorities have made significant efforts to bring their emission down many more have yet to even commit themselves to tackling their own emissions even though it can usually save money.
It remains to be seen whether public pressure and tweaking the performance framework will be enough to encourage these laggards to match the efforts of the leading authorities. There is little doubt that tackling climate change is a costly and resource-intensive activity for local authorities, and the government will come under pressure to back up its demands with extra cash to help authorities along the path.