Alice Garvey was one of the numerous volunteers on Climate Emergency UK’s Scorecards project, helping to assess councils’ climate action plans to a rigorous marking schema.
Like many of those who volunteered, Alice has a particular interest in local authority climate commitments — in her case, because the information being gathered feeds directly into her work. The Scorecards data informed her doctoral research; but she also found that being part of the team that helped to assemble this data brought extra insights as well.
So what is she working on?
Alice told us: “My PhD considers how different regions of the UK can reduce their emissions in a way that is fair, and that recognises the spatially varied opportunities and opportunity costs of decarbonisation. This is informed by both the need for rapid climate change mitigation at scale, as well as the need to level the UK’s significant regional inequalities.
“As part of my PhD I have been evaluating the potential contribution of Local Authority commitments to the overall achievement of net zero in the UK. This involved calculating the possible emissions reductions in scenarios where councils met their operational and/or area-wide net zero targets.
“The project also involved quantifying the ‘capability’ of different councils to decarbonise, to recognise that some areas face systemic barriers to developing and delivering climate plans.
“I have also undertaken interviews with stakeholders active in climate governance from across regions, sectors and scales of government in the UK. This has allowed me to evaluate how fair current governance arrangements for net zero are perceived to be, particularly from the perspective of councils.”
This is interesting! We wondered what had started Alice on this path of enquiry.
“The UK has exceptional levels of regional inequality, and the changes that are required during the low carbon transition are only likely to exacerbate old, or introduce new, inequalities. I undertook this project to help highlight some of these tensions and trade-offs, to identify the areas that are likely to fall behind without further support, and the kind of support that they may need.
“To do this, I focused on the role of councils as local-regional institutions. It was increasingly evident that councils are ‘expected’ to have a plan to achieve net zero, despite there being no formal requirement for them to do so. Similarly, given longstanding budget cuts to local authorities in the UK, it is doubtful whether many councils have the financial capability to deliver programmes around net zero. I thought that the gap between the rhetoric of local climate action and the lack of formal responsibilities was interesting, and worthy of further exploration.
“For instance, what scale of emissions reductions would the voluntary net zero commitments of councils achieve? What kind of role could or should the local scale play in national decarbonisation? What kinds of policies would enable councils to decarbonise more effectively, and more fairly? What do councils think of these policies? These were all questions I aimed to address in undertaking the research.”
So, the relevance of the Scorecards data is self-evident here. How had Alice come across it?
“I was aware of the Climate Emergency Declarations mapping from CE UK, which provided really good (and novel) oversight of the landscape of local climate commitments. When the Scorecards were getting started I got involved as a climate action plan scoring volunteer.”
And, as it turned out, that was a great way of understanding the data from the inside out.
“The process of undertaking the training, scoring the plans and engaging with CE UK gave me key insight into the workings of local government, and the significant challenges it faces in terms of decarbonisation. It enabled and inspired my use of the Scorecards in my own academic research.
“Though I primarily used the Scorecards for the net zero target dates for councils, they also made me think more critically about the drivers of these commitments and declarations, and the spatial variables that meant some areas were more ambitious than others.”
And how was this understanding applied?
“In my analysis I used the target data to develop scenarios of emissions reductions for each local authority in England if they met their net zero targets (and a scenario if they didn’t). I also used the scores from the Scorecards as part of an indicator framework that suggested how ambitious different councils were being, and compared this to an indicator of ‘capability’. This allowed a comparison of whether more ‘capable’ councils were being more ambitious and vice versa, and identifying regional trends in this.
“The analysis showed that many regions were taking more responsibility for decarbonisation than they were necessarily capable of, whilst other more capable regions were not taking proportionate action. Notably, the picture was more complicated than a simple North-South divide. I published this analysis as an academic paper and as a key part of my PhD.”
These insights seem really valuable, adding to our understanding of the work ahead required for an effective and just transition. How does Alice envisage that they’ll be used?
“I hope that the paper highlights the spatial variation in how local government works, and how this challenges granting any uniform responsibility for delivering net zero. For example, any local statutory responsibility for net zero would need to consider the varied starting points of different councils on their decarbonisation journey. I would also hope that it draws attention to the need for greater direction, greater support for councils from central government, if they are expected to have a formal role in delivering net zero in the UK. Given that delivery of net zero relies on action at all scales, across all regions, this is something that appears increasingly inevitable.
“Though it is only my perspective from the academic side, I would say that many papers do not reach the eyes and ears of decision-makers without further work to translate them. The protocols and language of such publications can limit their consumption to an academic audience.
“This is the reason that the publication of a paper can sometimes be only the beginning of the research process. Translating papers into policy briefs, calls for evidence, presentations, and dissemination through social media, can be key steps in ensuring the research makes its mark in the world outside the university.”
We hope that this research will indeed find its way into such channels, and that the findings will help inform the UK’s vital transition period. You can see Alice’s research in the paper: Climate ambition and respective capabilities: are England’s local emissions targets spatially just? Thanks very much to her for telling us all about it.
We’re always keen to hear how our work is helping inform other projects, so if you’ve been using it for a campaign, research or other purposes, please do get in touch and let us know.
Identifying opportunities for levelling up and net zero both require high quality, comparable local data
The levelling-up white paper sets out the government’s direction and strategy for reducing regional inequalities, a much-needed objective as the UK has one of the worst regional inequalities in the OECD countries. The paper outlines new opportunities for local authorities to have devolution-style powers and gain more autonomy by 2030.
There is a large gap in the levelling-up agenda: the white paper does not put the recently published net zero strategy at its heart. Both levelling up and net zero require systematic changes to the role local government plays in directing the economic activities of their area, and engaging and working with communities and citizens.
Improving local data is important to boosting local economies while delivering a net zero transformation, and implementing those two as one comprehensive package will help fully embed environmental considerations in economic decisions.
Levelling up and net zero have to be approached as a mutually supportive package, and not as two separate packages. Their implementation will create new economic models and lead to new governance structures. Both require new transparency mechanisms to enable citizens to track progress towards commitments.
A new independent body to gather, enhance and make data accessible to local governments and citizens
Both the levelling up and net zero agendas would benefit from high quality, evidence-based, and comparable local data. In the current situation, local data is not easy to navigate and does not always allow easy data discovery, aggregation and re-use.
mySociety and Climate Emergency UK have been working to transform a situation where council’s climate plans are hard to find and understand by making council climate action plans accessible on a central website, and producing comparison tools and scores on the basis of written commitments found in climate emergency plans to spur comparisons, identify best practice, and improve performance.
The importance of improved local data is recognised in the levelling up white paper announcement of a new independent body (p. 138) to gather, enhance, and make data accessible to local governments and citizens. Creating central pools of information helps spread learning and improve accountability, without undermining the local innovation that devolving power and responsibilities to local authorities and communities unlocks. The stated goal of this new body is to improve local leaders’ knowledge of their own services while increasing central government’s understanding of local authorities’ activities. This new body can play a very important part in improving the local data ecosystem.
This new capacity is equally important to the goal of net zero. It would be a missed opportunity not to strongly consider how this body could support local governments’ move towards net zero, and enable a transparent and just transition.
Addressing the limitations
Creating high quality local data is important to improving outcomes, but will also demonstrate the limits of current financial constraints. To deliver ambitious and sustainable transformations in both regional inequality and net zero requires sustained and structured investment in the resources and capacities of local authorities. Addressing inequalities through better local data should not be limited to collating data on economic inequalities, and it is therefore critical that the new datasets also highlight local health inequalities and gaps in social care funding that significantly contribute to existing inequalities that, in turn, lead to poor engagement in climate action. Data should not be a stick to beat local governments, but a tool to help them articulate problems and find solutions.
The plan is for the new independent data body to be co-designed with local government, but it is also important that this reflects the needs of local communities and citizens. Citizen engagement and participation is vital for both levelling up and net zero. As outlined by the Climate Change Committee, 62 per cent of the measures needed to meet the country’s net zero goal will require some form of behaviour or societal change, and this should be reflected on how data is used to drive accountability and transparency.
As more plans about this new data body emerge, we will advocate for it to support the transition to net zero through promoting inter-council learning, central government understanding, and community accountability.
What mySociety is doing around net zero and data
mySociety is working to repower democracy and enable new approaches to reducing carbon emissions. We are taking our experience running services such as TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet to work with partners and explore new services to reduce emissions within the scope of local authority activities.
To date, we have worked with Climate Emergency UK on the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, making local climate action plans more discoverable and accessible for local governments, campaigners, and citizens.
Image: Retrofitting homes in progress, by Ashden