Much of our activity on the Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) over the last year has been supported by BEIS. This funding has given us the luxury of time and resource to develop new features, based on research into our core users’ needs.
We’ve made progress in four broad areas:
Different ways into the data
More intuitive routes for experts and non-experts to explore UK councils’ Climate Action Plans and understand more about each one.
- We developed a ‘nearest neighbour’ dataset, based on research with council officers.
This matches councils by more relevant criteria than just their location: see more details in this blog post and this update.
- We consulted local authorities and campaigners to understand more about what’s most important to them in local climate strategies, then put together a browse by feature page. This uses data from the Climate Emergency UK Scorecards project to create collections of plans that exhibit best practice in key areas. More in our blog post here.
- We included links to additional sources of data to every council’s page, such as the Tyndall Centre Carbon Budget, and Friends of the Earth’s ‘Near You’ tool.
Insight and oversight
By showing the scale of ambition amongst the most active local authorities, CAPE provides peer motivation for less aspirational councils.
- We collected the headline promises in which UK councils commit to the date by which they will reach net zero. More in our blog post here.
- We provided substantial technical support to Climate Emergency UK on their Council Climate Plan Scorecards project, which analyses comparable features across every plan in our database. The scores can now be easily compared across all authorities of a given type.
Seeding and nurturing open data
We’re supporting the monitoring and analysis of local climate response with a growing open dataset, and encouraging councils to publish better standardised data to allow CAPE and other similar services to be sustained more easily.
- We’ve added BEIS data on emissions for each council, broken down by source. We were able to calculate Combined Authority data from constituent boroughs/districts, so have also added a novel open dataset — more about that in this blog post.
- We created a new way to browse emissions reduction projects by Scottish local authorities.
- The total number, cost, and emissions reduction estimates of a council’s projects are also displayed on their CAPE page.
Awareness and uptake
We’ve been facilitating networks and ensuring that councils and other stakeholders know about, and can use, the resource.
- We presented at several online seminars and conducted outreach with local authority officers and councillors.
- We met one to one with a variety of organisations to let them know how CAPE could help them.
- We ran the first informal get-together for an international set of climate organisations — more are planned.
This work has brought us new understanding about what councils need; what the public understands; what data is available and what needs to happen in the future if local authorities are to be properly equipped to fulfil the net zero targets they’ve committed to.
mySociety believes in working in the open, so we share whatever insights we can through our blog and research portal, with the aim of facilitating quicker, more effective climate action across the UK.
New obligations are needed
Practically speaking, we’ve been able to provide new data for developers, researchers, councils — and anyone working on climate, especially in the digital realm.
But while the data we added to CAPE is substantial and useful, it only scratches the surface of what could be done if better data was coming from local authorities themselves.
Proactive data releases could bring immeasurable benefits to council climate officers, campaigners and researchers, but are unlikely to happen until reporting like this is made a statutory requirement for local authorities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as they are in Scotland.
Reduced council budgets only increase the need for data
As is clear from the CAPE dataset, many local authorities have set themselves ambitious emissions reduction targets. More than 50%, 251 councils, are promising carbon neutrality as soon as 2030.
Ambition is admirable, but climate officers are grappling with the dual challenges of implementing widespread change across all of their councils’ activities, on a narrow budget with little statutory or regulatory backing. Many of them are defining their own roles even while they work, and are building their idea of an effective local authority climate response based on best practice observed in their peers.
This is why a large part of our work has focused on enabling quicker, more informed comparison between local authorities, encouraging a break from the usual preconceived comparison sets. Instead we facilitate the exploration of actions taken by councils in similar, specific situations.
But our work can only go so far, when reliable, up-to-date, and machine-readable data on councils’ climate actions is so thin on the ground.
Local authorities have almost no statutory obligation to measure or report on the emissions generated by their own operations or their area as a whole, nor on the actions they are taking to reduce those emissions.
This data must be provided in a machine-readable format, enabling automatic comparison across time periods so that impact can be tracked throughout multi-year emissions reduction projects.
- We developed a ‘nearest neighbour’ dataset, based on research with council officers.
February proved to be a month of relative calm for the mySociety Climate team, positioned as we were, between our previous whirlwind of activity delivering the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, and the imminent beginning of our ‘prototyping weeks’, introduced in last month’s notes by Lucas.
That’s not to say we didn’t get a lot done! Here’s a run-down of everything we managed to pack in this February, and some hints of what’s on the horizon.
Full steam ahead on our first two prototyping weeks
As mentioned before, over the first half of this year, we’ll be exploring some of the topics from our ‘hopper’ of ideas that have come out of all our research and development so far.
In a process inspired by Design Jams and the GV Design Sprint, we’ll be inviting external subject matter experts—council officers, tech and open data practitioners, local government suppliers, citizens, campaigners—to work with us for a week, on a topic they have experience of, so that we can quickly identify, prototype, and test services that will really move the needle on enabling a faster, more informed and more collaborative local response to climate change.
This month, we planned out exactly what these prototyping weeks will look like—for us, and external participants—and began approaching potential partners and stakeholders that we feel could contribute the most on our first two topics:
- Climate and local government procurement
- Enabling local climate action through ‘conditional commitment’
If either of these two topics interest you, fill in our signup form and Siôn will get in touch with more details.
Research on public understanding of local authorities and climate
One of mySociety’s key strengths has always been our ability to combine research and action, to make a difference on the problems that matter. Over the last few months, Alex has been working on beefing up our research capacity, so that we can understand more about the role local government plays in combating climate change.
After interviews earlier this month, our research comissioning process is now complete, and we are excited to have engaged a really excellent external researcher, Tom Sasse, to take on this important piece of work. More from them in due course!
Two new features for CAPE
This month we dramatically improved the way that CAPE displays emissions data, to help people picture which sectors (industrial, commercial, domestic, transport, etc) the most emissions are coming from in each part of the country.
We also introduced a new ‘Browse by feature’ page, allowing you to see councils whose plans scored particularly well in key areas we’ve identified as being of most interest to officers, campaigners, and community groups – from councils with the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, or the best communicated plans, to the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.
If you missed my blog post last week about bringing these two long-awaited features to CAPE, give it a read now.
Header image: A technician makes adjustments to a wind turbine, Dennis Schroeder / NREL.
Last month the project we’ve been supporting Climate Emergency UK on, their Council Climate Plan Scorecards, made a big splash with local and national news outlets.
But that’s not all mySociety’s climate team has been working on – we’ve also been putting effort into making CAPE, our Climate Action Plan Explorer, more useful to council officers and campaigners, through improved emissions data, and ‘features’ – a whole new way of discovering councils with exemplary plans.
Sectoral emissions breakdown
Until recently, CAPE displayed a small amount of emissions data on each council’s page – coming from BEIS’s annual estimates of CO2 emissions within the scope of influence of local authorities:
A key improvement we wanted to make was to better highlight the sources of emissions in a council’s area. The balance of emissions from different sectors (domestic, industrial, commercial, transport, etc) will be different for each council, and will influence their approach to emissions reduction.
Thanks to BEIS funding, we’ve been able to expand our emissions data to cover combined authorities and new 2021 authorities, and we’ve used this to display a new emissions graph on council pages that separates out the emissions of different sectors over time:
Find your council on CAPE today, to see how emissions stack up in your area.
We hope this improved breakdown will help visitors understand the actions their councils are taking, and the scope there is for improvement in the different areas. The graphs can be downloaded and re-used, with the data source and attribution already embedded. Hooray for transparency!
Browse by feature
And there’s more. If you’re interested in seeing, say, all the councils who are doing a good job engaging residents and other stakeholders on their climate plans, or maybe all the councils with a clear plan for upskilling the workforce in the face of climate change, then we’ve got a new feature for you.
Thanks to data from the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, you can now use CAPE to browse councils by ‘features’ we’ve identified, through our research, as being particularly interesting to council officers and campaigners – such as the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, the best communicated plans, and the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.
You can start by visiting the ‘Browse by feature’ page:
Or you can follow the links on any council’s page, to see other councils who also share the same features:
We’re looking to expand our selection of features over time, but we need to make sure these are based on an external dataset that we can import into CAPE. If you have an idea of something new we should include, let us know!
Today, Climate Emergency UK launches the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, an assessment of every UK council’s Climate Action Plan against several criteria of excellence.
mySociety provided technical support for the Scorecards project, which used data from CAPE which was then marked against Climate Emergency UK’s scrupulous Action Plans checklist, created with advice from Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth. You can read about CEUK’s methodology here (and we recommend you do; it really helps one understand the scale of what they’ve pulled off here).
Our support for this project reflects the overarching mission of mySociety’s Climate programme, in making it easier for citizens to understand and engage with their local authorities’ actions in the face of the climate emergency; and the mission of the organisation as a whole in providing data and digital tools for meaningful citizen to government engagement.
Climate Action Plans are often long, complex documents. The Scorecards project helps residents, who may not be experts, to understand where their council is planning well and where there is still work to be done. It gives them a way to see how good their council’s preparation is in the context of the country as a whole, and understand what could be, but is not, in their local climate plan.
But another important aim of the Scorecards project is to benefit councils. Local authorities can now see how their Climate Action Plan compares to those of other similar authorities, and to learn from those councils who have scored better in specific areas. They should be able to see potential for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and improvement that perhaps weren’t immediately visible before this data was publicly available.
We were happy to provide support to this project because we’ve seen how meticulous CEUK’s scoring process has been at every step of the way. They’ve trained up an incredible cohort of dedicated volunteers, who dug into the work because they believed in doing something tangible for the good of the environment. They’ve sought feedback on the first round of marking from councils, folding in the right of reply to a second round; and they’ve worked to a double auditing process.
Meanwhile, mySociety’s input has been in two areas: help with technical development, and help in refining methodology. We were keen to ensure that the Scorecards were genuinely helpful to citizens and councils alike, rather than being a tool for mud-slinging. It’s a fact that councils are underfunded, managing multiple priorities, and dealing with a pandemic while trying to tackle their responsibilities in the face of the climate emergency.
We see public climate action plans as part of the conversation between citizens and government about how we can tackle this crisis together. Any public plan can be a starting point for discussion where we hope that councils and citizens will both ask themselves, ‘What can we do to improve this situation?’ For the fifth of UK local councils still have not published plans to tackle climate change, that conversation has yet to begin.
As part of this thinking, it was important for the design to make comparisons that are fair, and give useful contrasts to users in the public and in local government. Each council is compared only to those which have similar responsibilities. For example, district councils are grouped together and can be seen in the context of one another; and so can unitary councils, but you can’t compare a unitary council with a district council.
Within each of these groups, we’ve provided options to drill down further. We’ve made it easy to compare councils in the same region, the same political control, with similar urban/rural balance, or deprivation profile. We hope this tool is helpful for everyone in making useful comparisons, and for councils in helping them learn from their similar counterparts.
That’s it! In short: we hope you’ll learn from the Scorecard project, and we hope you’ll pass it on to others who might do so, too.
Image: Max Williams
Another productive month for the Climate team: Climate Emergency UK’s launch of the Council Climate Plan Scorecards project is very close. We’ve been providing them with technical help, designing and building the website, and it’ll all finally come to life very soon.
I’m happy to mention that this is my first contribution to mySociety’s blog. Hi everyone, I’m Lucas, one of the recent acquisitions on the Design team, and I’ve been working on the design and front-end aspects of the Council Climate Plan Scorecards for the past few months.
Without further ado, let’s see what we’ve been up to this month.
Council Climate Plan Scorecards
We have some exciting news regarding the Climate Scorecards. The CEUK team has led their teams of motivated, trained volunteers and consulted with local authorities to complete the right to reply followed by the second marking process. We’re now super close to launch.
CEUK have also been busy securing press coverage – it looks like at least one major national will be carrying the story in detail, and there’ll be a co-ordinated effort, again, made possible by those amazing volunteers – to ensure that regional press know the stories around their local councils’ scores, too.
Ideally this website will reach as many people as possible, hopefully then inspiring them to take further actions to combat climate change, encourage more communicative councils, and thereby strengthen local communities.
The design for the social media infographics has been approved, ready to be used and shared on Twitter and Facebook on the launch date. We want users to share their council’s score and celebrate those councils who have performed well in the different sections and, of course, in the overall scores.
The Scorecards design process
I started three months ago at mySociety as a Front-end/Developer to work and provide support across the wide range of projects we manage — but the Council Climate Plan Scorecards was the first big project that I had to design from scratch.
From the beginning, it’s been an interesting experience, getting to know key stakeholders such as CEUK, understanding their requirements for the Scorecards website and at the same time, getting familiar with mySociety’s procedures and processes.
When we started the design process, there was an idea, a concept, a “something” we wanted to achieve. That was enough to allow us to create the Scorecards’ grey wireframe model: not so good looking, but a great help and an efficient way to understand how users will interact with the tables, while also checking whether we’d planned all the right components for the website.
At this stage, Zarino and I were focusing primarily on the usability aspect of the site. With feedback from the team and CEUK, we were able to improve those wireframes and give them some light and colour, for a better representation of what the final experience would look like. At this point, we were still working on some of the components and improving the user interface and the usability side of things, especially for the tables and filters.
Weekly design/comms meetings helped us achieve the design we have now, and served as a basis for the front-end development of the website, while we could also keep up to speed on getting the word out about the launch.
And so, here we are today, about to launch the climate scorecards project. Let’s not forget to mention the amazing help from Struan on development, Zarino on design and Alex on methodology/number crunching.
Who’s got an idea?
The Climate team has started the new year recharged and ready to explore new ideas on how to maximise the impact of our work.
Zarino and Louise came up with the idea of exploring several promising ideas that we’ve had sitting in our Hopper, our list of ideas that have been sitting in the backlog waiting for the team to add some magic. This will happen via ‘rapid prototyping’ weeks – “six weeks to change the world”, as Louise put it.
The process we are developing leans heavily on Google Ventures’ sprint design process – albeit it will in all likelihood be collaborating to develop ideas rather than taking our solutions to partners / the ‘market’. In some weeks we might spend some time building rough versions of what they might look like, which then enable us to make decisions about whether they have the ‘legs’ to go further; in others it’ll be a looser exploration.
We’re aware that not all ideas will fit a prototyping approach, and we’re also keen to make sure those are given equal chance at implementation, so this isn’t the only way for ideas to be considered. But our first prototyping weeks are pencilled into the diary for this spring: watch this space for more progress.
We discussed several exciting new initiatives, some related to procurement, useful data for climate justice and tech action and finally, a pledge system to strengthen local communities.
Some more great news this month, around the research commissioning process we outlined in last month’s notes: bids for our first commission (“Public understanding of local authorities and climate”) closed last week. We’re glad to say that there are some really good submissions.
The team will review these in the coming days, and we’re also looking forward to releasing the next two commissions on “public pressure and local authorities” and “how local authorities make decisions around climate”.
That’s it for this month! Lots going on.
Image: Emiliana Hall
Another month, another chance to share progress from the Climate team. And this time, you get to hear it from a different person too – Hello! I’m Zarino, one of mySociety’s designers, and Product Lead for the Climate programme.
Over the last month, we’ve moved the programme on in three main areas: Adding some much-anticipated features to our headline product, the Climate Action Plans Explorer; continuing full steam ahead on development of Climate Emergency UK’s ‘Council Climate Plan Scorecards’ site, and setting up a research commissioning process that will kick in early next year.
New features on CAPE
Just barely missing the cut for Siôn’s mid-November monthnotes, we flipped the switch on another incremental improvement to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans:
CAPE now shows you whether a council has declared a climate emergency, and whether they’ve set themselves any public targets on becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. We are incredibly grateful to our partners Climate Emergency UK for helping us gather this data. Read my earlier blog post to find out more about how we achieved it.
As well as displaying more data about each council, a core aim of the CAPE site is enabling more valuable comparisons with—and explorations of—the plans of similar councils. Previously, we’d done this by allowing you to browse councils of a particular type (London Boroughs, say, or County Councils), and by showing a list of “nearby” councils on each council’s page.
However, we’re now excited to announce the launch of a whole new dimension of council comparisons on the site, thanks to some amazing work by our Research Associate Alex. To try them out, visit your council’s page on CAPE, and scroll down:
These five tabs at the bottom of a council’s page hide a whole load of complexity—much of which I can barely explain myself—but the upshot is that visitors to CAPE will now be able to see much more useful, and accurate, suggestions of similar councils whose plans they might want to check out. Similar councils, after all, may be facing similar challenges, and may be able to share similar best practices. Sharing these best practices is what CAPE is all about.
We’ll blog more about how we prepared these comparisons, in the new year.
Council Climate Plan Scorecards
As previously noted, we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to display the results of their analysis of council climate action plans, in early 2022. These “scorecards”, produced by trained volunteers marking councils’ published climate action plans and documents, will help open up the rich content of council’s plans, as well as highlighting best practice in nine key areas of a good climate emergency response.
As part of the marking process, every council has been given a ‘Right of Reply’, to help Climate Emergency UK make sure the scorecards are as accurate as possible. We’re happy to share that they’ve received over 150 of these replies, representing over 50% of councils with a published climate action plan.
With those council replies received, this month Climate Emergency UK’s experts were able to complete a second round of marking, producing the final scores.
Meanwhile, Lucas, Struan, and I have been working away on the website interface that will make this huge wealth of data easily accessible and understandable – we look forward to sharing more about this in January’s monthnotes.
Finally, as Alex recently blogged, we’ve been setting up a research commissioning process for mySociety – primarily to handle all the research we’d like to do in the Climate programme next year. Our main topics for exploration aren’t yet finalised, but we’re currently very interested in the following three areas:
- Public understanding of local authorities and climate
- Public pressure and local authorities
- How local authorities make decisions around climate
Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.
The Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is gathering together every Climate Action Plan from every UK council that’s published one. We’re actively adding more functionality on an ongoing basis; most recently, we’ve extracted the ‘headline pledges’ from each plan, like this:
Pledges like this give an idea of the council’s overarching priorities, but often have not been presented in isolation before, even by the councils themselves.
Why we did this
A core aim of our Climate programme is to improve the information ecosystem around local responses to the climate emergency:
“We’re improving the information ecosystem to allow local and national campaigns, policymakers and other stakeholders to undertake better scrutiny and analysis of local climate action, and develop evidence-based policies and solutions.”
We’ve already written about how we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to collect and score Climate Action Plans for every local authority in the UK. Providing people with an easy way into their local authority’s action plan will give them an unprecedented opportunity to gauge their council’s level of ambition in facing the climate emergency, and how they’re planning to turn those ambitions into actions.
But plans can be complex, and time-consuming to read. Another, faster way people can understand their council’s level of ambition is by finding any targets that it might have set itself for decarbonising either the entire area, or just the council’s own operations, by a particular date.
We call these ‘pledges’, and they’re typically not all that easy to find – they can be buried in council meeting minutes, or slipped somewhere into an unassuming page on the council’s website or action plan.
Knowing what date your council is working towards, and what they believe they can achieve by that date, fundamentally sets the scene when it comes to understanding and contributing to the council’s climate actions.
That’s why we decided to collect these pledges and share them on CAPE. Here’s where you’ll find them on each council’s page, setting the scene before you dig into the full action plan:
How we did this
Collecting these pledges from scratch would be a mammoth task. Luckily, we were able to build on two partial datasets that gave us a headstart.
An important thing to note is that we wanted to collect not only the scope (that is to say, whether the plan covers council operations only, or the whole area) and target date, but also the exact wording of the pledge, and the source where it was found.
We found that local authorities often use terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ interchangeably, and the scope of pledges can sometimes be ambiguous. The most objective approach, therefore, was to present the entire pledge, as it was originally worded, and leave it up to the viewer to interpret the council’s intent. Collecting and exposing the source of the pledge would allow them to dig deeper and view the pledge in context, if they wanted to.
Our partners, Climate Emergency UK, had already been collecting climate target dates as part of their ongoing monitoring of council responses to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. But since the target dates were just one small part of a much wider database, they hadn’t collected the direct quotes that we wanted to present.
Still, in the Climate Emergency UK dataset, we effectively had a wide but shallow starting point, covering most councils in the UK, from which we could then proceed to fill in the detail by revisiting the sites, scanning them for anything that looked like a pledge, and pasting them into our database.
We were also incredibly grateful to receive a smaller, but much more detailed, dataset of climate commitments from the National Audit Office, which covered 70% of the principal local authorities in England, some of which had made no commitments. They themselves had manually gathered these commitments from public sources—council’s minutes, websites, and action plans—over April to June of 2021.
Combined with the Climate Emergency UK dataset, this data from the National Audit Office got us 75% of the way towards a full dataset of climate pledges from every council in the UK.
With the help of Climate Emergency UK volunteers, we filled in the gaps on this combined dataset, collecting direct quotes for both council-only and whole area climate pledges, for 341 of the 408 councils in the UK.
For the remaining 67 councils, we were unable to find a public climate pledge, or at least one with a concrete target date – but we’re hopeful that we might yet find this information, and the CAPE website includes a link on these councils’ pages through which visitors (or maybe councillors or council officers!) can contribute the data, if they’ve found a source elsewhere.
The data was collected via an online spreadsheet, making it fairly easy to import into CAPE, as part of the website’s existing data processing pipeline. This feeds the pledges through to both the individual council pages, and also the all councils page, where you can now filter the list to show only councils with a target in a given five-year period, or no target at all.
We will soon also be exposing these pledges via the CAPE API, so third parties can programmatically access and reuse the data in their own services. If this sounds like something you might find useful, do get in touch or subscribe to our Climate newsletter where we’ll be sure to share any news.
Image: Romain Dancre
Time flies when you’re having fun, and the past month has passed in something of a blur. Maybe part of that can be explained by my being a relatively new recruit. But it’s also been thrilling to whizz towards the COP26 climate talks on a wave of enthusiasm and excellence emanating from the inspiring crew with whom I’m now working.
We’ve done a lot this month. Running a virtual event at the COP26 Coalition’s People’s Summit for Climate Justice allowed us to understand a range of perspectives on our Climate Action Plan Explorer. We also took the opportunity to test two differing approaches to promoting our new Net Zero Local Hero landing page, which was rapidly whisked into existence by the magnificent Myf, Zarino and Howard.
Giving money to tech giants makes us increasingly uneasy, but we set up advertising on three social media platforms so that we could fully understand, in a ringfenced test, what the benefits are and how these weigh up against the negatives. At the same time, we gave Kevin at Climate Emergency UK a stack of stickers (suitably biodegradable and on sustainable paperstock) to dish out in Glasgow. When we have time to analyse the results, we’re hoping to understand which method is most effective – digital ads or traditional paper.
Although we decided not to attend COP26 in person we followed from afar, aligned with those most at risk of exclusion by signing up to the COP26 Coalition’s Visa Support Service Solidarity Hub, supporting the coalition’s communications and amplifying marginalised perspectives on Twitter.
Myf has been following Act For Climate Truth’s bulletins on climate disinformation and mySociety signed the Conscious Advertising Network’s open letter asking for climate disinformation policies on the big tech platforms to be one of the outcomes of COP26. And we joined another broad, diverse group of organisations with a shared goal to encourage the delegates of COP26 to deliver more urgent action on climate change via https://cop26.watch/.
Myf also wrote up a case study on how Friends of the Earth used our work to fuel a recent campaign action (see previous month notes) and Louise presented to Open Innovations’ #PlanetData4 event, which I joined to dip into a discussion about Doughnut Economics.
And all the while our Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) has been quietly evolving. We got some great feedback – especially from local authority representatives – at our #NetZeroLocal21 conference session on 30 September. Since then we’ve added some pretty serious bells and whistles.
Chloe consolidated data from Climate Emergency UK and the National Audit Office on headline promises (a full blog post explaining more about this soon), and this data was deployed by Zarino and Struan alongside more information on climate emergencies, guidance on council powers and ways in which they could be put to use.
Zarino enriched user experience and boosted the climate information ecosystem’s health by migrating data from Climate Emergency UK’s website to CAPE. Digging deeper, Sam improved CAPE’s integration with our production deployment and management systems, fixing a few small bugs along the way that occasionally interfered with code deployment.
Our sights are now set on making the most of the heroic assessment of local authority Climate Action Plans being led by Climate Emergency UK. The right of reply period has ended and the second marking is underway. If you’d like to know more please check out this explanation of the process and get in touch with any thoughts – we’re really keen to understand how best this can be used to accelerate climate action in the wake of COP26.
Image: Ollivier Girard / CIFOR
In collaboration with Climate Emergency UK, we’ve collected local councils’ Climate Action Plans into one searchable online database we’re calling CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer. Work continues on adding more features to make this resource as useful as possible.
From the start it was clear that such a project would benefit several different stakeholders: councils can see what their counterparts in other regions are doing, and pick up good ideas from them; journalists and researchers can query the data to find nationwide trends and comparisons. And for concerned citizens and climate campaigners, CAPE provides a one-stop shop to see whether or not their council has a plan, and what exactly it contains. Coming soon will be new functionality to help laypeople to understand the quality of the plans, which can be quite complex, too.
As with most tools that we build at mySociety, CAPE is not only useful as a website in itself; its underlying data can also be used to inform developers’ own apps and websites, which can of course be useful for larger campaigning organisations.
This aspect played an important part in a recent campaign from Friends of the Earth, who ran an email action asking supporters to contact their local councillors to ask for an ambitious Climate Action Plan. This campaign is still up and running, but the initial push gave it a strong start from their most committed supporters.
A simple but crucial piece of data
FoE knew that it was important to tailor the messages they were asking their supporters to send: if the council being contacted had no Climate Action Plan at all, then the email needed to ask for this first step to be taken; while if there was a plan in place, the request was for rapid and ambitious implementation.
And so, CAPE data played a small but vital part in the FoE action, simply informing the automated email builder whether there was a plan for the user’s council or not, so that it could modify the text accordingly.
Shaan Jindal, FoE’s Digital Mobilisation Officer, led this campaign, and also conducted a thorough assessment of its effectiveness afterwards. He explains that the action had several main aims:
- To educate Friends of the Earth supporters on the role councils can play in addressing climate change
- To empower them to engage with their local councillors about their local Climate Action Plan
- To support the work of those FoE local groups and climate action groups campaigning for action plans, while educating the wider supporter base about the activity of these groups and encouraging them to join one.
- To demonstrate a high level of local support for action to councils, putting pressure on them to improve, enact and create ambitious plans.
The simple request to ‘ask your council for strong climate action now’ does however hide some fairly complex challenges, as Shaan explains:
“Climate Action Plans might be a fairly new concept to many of our email list supporters. They may have come to the action page from our email hoping for more information on how CAPs are important, the theory of change behind them or why campaigning at the local government level is as important as getting national-level change.
“But that said, the supporter email performed well for an ‘email your representative’ style action (7.4% of recipients clicked through to the action page), suggesting that supporters did find this a compelling way to create change and take climate action themselves.”
Engaging with councillors will, of course, ideally result in a response, and perhaps a bit of a longer back-and-forth, so FoE followed up with resources to guide supporters on how to reply back to their representatives, especially if these replies were pushing back on the very idea that any action needed to be taken by the council. They plan to keep up communications with every supporter who took the action, emailing them to provide further support where needed.
Coverage and new members
Practically every council in the UK, with the exception of just three, received at least one email from FoE’s action. Some councils received over 150 emails, and others only a handful.
It’s worth saying at this point that mySociety’s own WriteToThem service is built to explicitly prevent mass sending of similar or identical emails, in the belief that they are more easily ignored than personal communications and can be an irritant rather than changing the minds of representatives. But of course this was not our campaign, and indeed, since one of the aims of this action was to show councils that they have mass support from their residents to take ambitious steps towards Net Zero, it can be seen that a wave of consistent messaging is actually desirable in this case.
FoE detected additionally that about 140 people had made contact with their local branch to find out more after taking this action, prompted by a ‘find a group near you’ link in an automated thank you email, so it had a secondary effect of potentially creating new activists in the space.
While it’s too soon to comment on the wider impact of this action, there are definitely some encouraging results, says Shaan:
“The majority of supporters who completed our survey (79%) said that their councillor responded positively to their email, and only a small minority said they replied negatively (4%) or indifferently (9%). The remainder of supporters said they weren’t sure how to interpret their councillor’s response (8%).
“This is a positive initial indicator, but more time is needed to see whether this translates into councillors speaking up or taking action on creating, implementing or improving CAPs.”
Shaan goes on to explain that there are potential knock-on benefits, too:
“The action may have also helped to clarify with councillors what exactly a CAP is, and what a strong plan should look like. A couple of councillors got back to supporters saying that they already had a CAP, when in fact they just had a Climate Emergency declaration.
“Our follow up email to supporters with tips on how to respond to common councillor replies helped supporters to clarify this. Conversely, one councillor got back to us saying they directly used our template CAP in a council motion, as a result of receiving it from a constituent via our action.”
Shaan puts much of the action’s success down to the long lead time that was built in, and good all-round communications:
“We got in touch with groups early, gave them plenty of notice and resources to get involved with their own version of the action, and plenty of time to opt out of our wider supporter base emailing councillors in their area if that would hinder their campaign or implicate their relationship with the council.”
How CAPE helped
And how did that data from CAPE make a difference?
“The ability to send a different message to councillors, based on whether they had a CAP, was invaluable in increasing the chances of having a real impact. Climate Emergency UK and mySociety’s up-to-date data was vital for supporters to be able to accurately send councillors the correct version of the email.”
We’re really pleased that CAPE data was able to provide help to a campaign that is so aligned to our initial aims when we started this project, and we hope there will be many more opportunities to work together with FoE in the future, as councils’ activity moves on from plans and on to tangible action.
Top image: Danist Soh
One of the aims of the Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is to help make better-informed citizens: people who understand how their local council is planning to reach Net Zero targets, and who have the ability to assess whether or not those plans are adequate.
An online database of plans is a first step towards that, but there’s no escaping the fact that Action Plans can be long, dense documents full of technical language, difficult for the novice to wade through. And plans vary, from the short and vague to the in-depth and precise. As a citizen, how can you tell whether your council’s plan is really up to the challenges ahead?
There’s no escaping the fact that Action Plans can be long, dense documents full of technical language, difficult for the novice to wade through.
The answer came in the form of an impressive mobilisation effort from our partners at Climate Emergency UK (CEUK), who are in the process of applying scores to every council’s Climate Action Plan (or every council that has one, that is — currently around 81%), with the eventual aim of creating a ranked league table.
We heard all about the undertaking from CEUK’s Campaigns and Policy Officers, Isaac Beevor and Grace McMeekin, who told us how and why they approached this challenging task. First of all, we were keen to understand where the concept of scoring the plans began.
“Once the database of Climate Action Plans was in place, it became obvious how widely they differed in quality and in the level of commitments that each council has made”, explained Grace.
“We started to wonder if it was possible to systematically compare plans and make a reliable assessment on which ones stood up to scrutiny.
“We’d already developed a checklist, detailing 60+ points that an ideal plan should contain, and so, to test the water, I used this to assess Nottingham’s Climate Action plan. At that point, Nottingham had the most comprehensive plan that we knew of, so it seemed like a good place to start.”
“So we were already thinking about scoring”, Isaac adds, “but the concept of comparing only came about when we were approached by Annie, a campaigner, with the idea of creating a “Council Climate League”, based on the People & Planet’s tool that ranks universities according to their environmental and ethical performance.”
Right to reply
The need for scoring was quite clear: it would help citizens understand the context around their own councils’ plans — but would councils themselves see it that way? It’s possible that some of them wouldn’t take too kindly to having their action plans assessed, especially if they were near the bottom of the league.
That’s why CEUK decided to get in touch with councils well ahead of time, to work transparently and to give fair notice that the scoring process was to occur. Additionally, once the plans had been scored, every council would have a right to respond and their remarks will be taken into consideration in the final score.
“Ultimately it’s all about lowering the barriers to engagement and providing citizens with the information they need to be confident when they do talk about their councils’ action plans.”
“If you give the right to respond, with the whole conversation happening in public, then the overall quality of the assessment is improved, as you ensure that no information is lost,” says Isaac. “It allows councils to have their voice heard and correct any mistakes.
“There are just over 400 councils in this country. Some of them have multiple plans and updates: we may not have been looking at the very latest version. Some plans aren’t published front and centre on the council website, but may be embedded in meeting minutes… so we may well have missed a number of plans that were, theoretically, at least, available to the public by our cut-off date of September 20th.
“We also know that despite our best efforts to make the questions objective and to train scorers to mark consistently, people will approach plans differently. They might miss information or make mistakes. It’s just human nature and you have to allow for it.”
Once councils have all had their chance to reply, the initial scoring will then be audited by a small team. Taking into account the initial assessment and the council’s response, they will confirm and finalise each score. The whole process is expected to be complete in early 2022.
CEUK have managed the arduous first round, in which they have scored more than 300 Climate Action Plans, by training up a cohort of volunteers. Was this the plan from the very beginning?
“Yes: the number of action plans, the fact that councils often don’t publish them in places that are particularly easy to find, and the fact that they’re not just static documents but might be frequently updated — all these complications made it clear that we’d need to call on others for help.
“However, what wasn’t obvious was whether we could really expect volunteers to trawl through plans that are often boring, confusing or just plain unsexy! It’s a lot of work when you’re not even being paid, so we had to think about what we might be able to give back in return.”
“If you give the right to respond, with the whole conversation happening in public, then the overall quality of the assessment is improved.”
CEUK cunningly made this potentially tedious task into a more enticing prospect that would have benefits for people taking part. They wrapped the scoring project within a training process that would leave participants better informed and with some new skills under their belt: “The idea was that if we offered people an opportunity to learn then they would be interested in scoring a higher number of plans”, says Grace.
Since not everyone can give the same amount of time and commitment, they decided to offer two different tracks.
The Local Climate Policy Programme was a course for anyone involved with or interested in local climate policy. It involved 15 hours of webinars and training over three weeks, and included the scoring of three to six action plans.
Participants on this track heard from experts such as council climate officers, analysts, project managers and prominent figures in climate policy, including Louise Evans, who wrote the Local Authorities and Sixth Carbon Budget Report, Judi Kilgallon, Climate Change Transformation Manager from the Scottish Improvement Service and Dr Anthony Hurford, Project Manager of Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab at Centre for Alternative Technology.
Volunteer Assessors: This simpler offering involved a more traditional model of volunteering, with a single session of training on how to score, and ongoing support via instant messaging and CEUK’s documentation as plans were marked. For this model, participants were expected to score just one or two plans within a month.
For both tracks, volunteers were recruited via websites like Charityjob and Environmentjob. “We didn’t know what sort of response to expect, and when there was an enthusiastic takeup, we were just blown away,” says Grace.
“In fact there were so many applicants — 137 of them — that the challenge became more about whittling them down rather than finding enough people. We conducted interviews to ensure that we were only recruiting the keenest people.
“In the end we maxed out our capacity for two cohorts of the Local Climate Policy Programme, involving 65 participants”.
Meanwhile the Volunteer Assessor programme attracted almost 170 applicants. Again these were trimmed down to a total of 65 who actually took part in the scoring.
Isaac says, “They were a mix of people with a mix of motivations. Some were considering jobs in policy and wanted to learn more about it, while others were just interested to scrutinise their own council’s Action Plan. Across the board there was also the very strong motivator of wanting to be involved in something bigger than yourself.
“What was nice was the diversity of the applicants in terms of age and background. The majority were a mix of students and recent graduates, but about 40% were people looking to change careers, and then there were people who had retired. They were based across England, Scotland and Wales, although there was a bit of a skew towards Londoners”.
Everyone who had completed scoring on at least three plans was offered a certificate at the end of their course.
What it’s all for
We asked Grace and Isaac to summarise what CEUK hope to achieve with all of this industrious effort. They mentioned four desired outcomes.
“First, of course, it gives councils the motivation to ensure that their plans are the very best they can be, meaning they’ll be more effective and more likely to actually meet the challenges of the climate emergency.
“We hope it’ll open up conversations between people and their council representatives.”
“Then, and this is a slightly more nuanced point — one really good outcome would be more standardisation of what’s expected from a council’s Climate Action Plan. At the very least that means that they’ve calculated their baseline and included a breakdown of where emissions currently arise. Once plans are held to the same standards, it’s so much easier to compare them, but also, this is the bare minimum of what we should be able to expect from our councils.
“The third thing is visibility. If we want everyone to be able to understand Action Plans, the first step is being able to find them in the first place, so if we make that at all easier, that’s a positive step as well.
“And then finally, and most importantly, we hope the whole project will result in more awareness from citizens and more action around the climate emergency from councils.”
mySociety and CEUK have worked closely during the creation of the Climate Action Plans Explorer, and we’ll continue to do so as new features and analysis like this are added throughout the project.
It’s proving to be a felicitous partnership that allows each organisation to play to its strengths: CEUK has indepth climate knowledge, sector contacts, interns and volunteer capacity; while at mySociety we can provide technical development and data wrangling.
“mySociety has just been incredibly useful,” says Isaac. “We couldn’t have done any of this alone.”
And what’s next, once the councils have all been given the right to reply and the final audit is over?
“We’ll be publishing the league table,” Grace says, “so that everyone can easily see how their council is doing, and how they compare to, say, neighbouring councils. We hope it’ll open up conversations between people and their council representatives.
There was the very strong motivator of wanting to be involved in something bigger than yourself.
“Ultimately it’s all about lowering the barriers to engagement and providing citizens with the information they need to be confident when they do talk about their councils’ action plans.”
But, once that’s done, it’s not as if CEUK will be putting their feet up — in fact, they’ve already got the next steps mapped out, as Isaac explained:
“Well of course, all these climate action plans are all just that — plans! Most of them came out in 2020 and some are still being published now. They’re lists of intended actions, and generally the councils will have provided a date – commonly 2030 or 2050 – by which they want to realise those actions.
“That’s a long period of time to keep on track, and is likely to involve several changes in council make-ups and majorities, so it’s absolutely vital that there’s a regular assessment of progress, and so the next step is to figure out the best way to manage that.”
Sounds like CEUK have guaranteed themselves work to do for a good long while. We’re really glad to be playing our part and helping to make it happen.