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The local authority dilemma: engage in local climate action now, or wait?

18 April 2017 Author: Isobel Bruun-Kiaer

Earth 20100223-full

Image credit: NASA/GISS.

Local climate action is not just about 'climate change' - it is about planning for the future of our places and communities. It is being ready for how the environment will change and engaging with this in a way that builds the liveable and healthy places that we want to live in, now and into the future. So why isn't local climate action common place?

It brings to mind this cartoon. I'm sure you'll have seen it before. What do we have to lose in creating a better world?

So what do I mean by local climate action?

What I'm referring to are initiatives or policies to reduce in greenhouse gas emissions, and to adapt existing environments to the global changes that have already been set in motion. But fundamentally, local climate action is more than about acting on climate, these initiatives bring about a plethora of other social, economic and environmental benefits. For instance, improving or creating green space in an area can provide health benefits to the local community, improve air quality, improve biodiversity, act as a force for social cohesion, act as a carbon sink to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, prevent flooding by reducing rainfall runoff on hard surfaces but to name a few of the multiple benefits. And this is just one example.

March Blog

Focus group with Tauranga City Council and regional council staff

As I learn more about local climate action in New Zealand, I'm finding how legislation either enables or prohibits local action under the current local government system. In some cases, local authorities are placed in a difficult position by national legislation. My focus groups for the RTPI George Pepler Award research have demonstrated each of these points:

Tauranga City Council is planning for climate change adaptation – modelling inundation from storm surges, sea level rise over the next 100 year timescale and flooding from stormwater. It is working in partnership with the regional councils and delivery agencies to model future scenarios, develop strategies and to understand the different environments within the local authority area (coastal, harbour industrial, suburban, urban and greenfield). The planning departments and the civil defence departments are engaged in this work within their existing local government roles, and it is supported by national government. Or rather, the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010 stipulates that sea level rise as a hazard must be planned for at the 100 year timeframe as a minimum and using climate change evidence.

[T]he Climate Change Act 2008 and planning policy across the UK nations in principle provide strong frameworks for local climate action, but ...action on the ground can in some cases be inhibited by a lack of prioritisation of climate change at the national level

But the picture on mitigation action is very different. There is determination and enthusiasm from the Tauranga City Council staff to promote renewable energy generation, energy efficiency and electric vehicles. But the Resource Management Act 1991 (as amended up to 2017) explicitly prevents carbon dioxide emissions from being considered in terms of the impact to future climate. Let's break this down. Local government in New Zealand can't promote carbon reduction on the basis of climate change. The impact of CO2 emissions can't be taken into account as considerations in policy and decisionmaking.

Council staff want to engage with the post-Paris drive to reduce carbon emissions within their local communities, but the legislation that governs their roles and responsibilities can act as a barrier to achieving this. Instead, council staff need to find an innovative work-around for existing legislation within a working environment where responsibilities are governed by defined processes or methodologies. Tauranga is not alone in this, it seems to be a wider local authority dilemma: the need to justify the question "do we act now, or do we wait?"

It strikes me that this echoes the situation faced by local authorities in the UK. The Climate Change Act 2008 and planning policy and frameworks across the UK nations in principle provide strong frameworks for local climate action, but actual policy and action on the ground can in some cases be inhibited by a lack of prioritisation of climate change at the national level, especially in England. Local government is tasked with acting on climate change to achieve national targets, but to prioritise local climate action is seen as a risk. This is despite the multiple benefits.

So in both the UK and New Zealand it would seem that staff within local government need to step up to the challenge of finding ways through (and in some cases, around) existing legislation to plan for the future of our places and communities. But it is also worth asking the follow up question to this local authority dilemma, namely what are you waiting for?

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.

Isobel Bruun-Kiaer

Isobel Bruun-Kiaer

Isobel Bruun-Kiaer is the 2016/2017 RTPI George Pepler International Award recipient. She is exploring how Tauranga City Council in New Zealand is planning for resilience to climate change. Isobel tweets at @climateNZ