Empowering communities: the importance of local action in the transition to net zero

  • Climate and sustainability
  • Election 24

Sophy Bristow, Senior Researcher, the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge. 

In this piece Sophy Bristow from the Centre for Climate Engagement at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge demonstrates the importance of communities and the role of local government in the delivery of net zero. 


Regular readers will be familiar with the argument that local involvement and action, and local funding partnerships are the key to improving local communities and supporting them in the transition to net zero. Back in 2021, the Academy of Social Sciences posted details of a report released in partnership with SAGE Publishing, as Whitehall was preparing its new ‘levelling up’ plans. The report argued that virtually every social science discipline had a part to play in climate action, and that funding and long-term partnerships with local universities, local businesses and local authorities was proven to lead to positive results in making local communities a better place to live.

In 2022, a report by UK Research and Innovation on “Accelerating Net Zero Delivery” came to a similar conclusion, emphasising the importance of local action in the transition to net zero by detailing the economic and social value of locally tailored approaches to decarbonisation. It argued that place-specific strategies, compared to national ones, can lead to significantly better outcomes in terms of energy savings, social benefits, and reduced investment costs. This approach allowed for the unique characteristics, needs, and opportunities of different locations to be considered, leading to more cost-effective and impactful decarbonisation efforts. For example, if Cambridgeshire & Peterborough selected the most socially cost-effective combination of low carbon measures, emissions would be reduced by 25% more by 2035 compared with current baseline trends. £1.1bn investment would reduce energy bills by £2bn and would lead to £15bn in wider social benefits (data available on page 14 here).

The report also highlighted the need for a new delivery framework to coordinate local and national efforts, underscoring the crucial role of local action in achieving net zero goals.

In January 2023, a report “Mission Zero: Independent Review of Net Zero” led by Chris Skidmore MP underscored the crucial role of local action and local authorities in the UK’s transition to new zero. Our research at the Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) backs up the argument. Two of our most recent projects show that local actions are pivotal to our collective success in the journey towards achieving net zero. The first examines how amendments to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill could strengthen local authority decision making, and the second is a new initiative to create a governance framework to support local authorities in achieving net zero emissions that is aligned with national level reporting.

Empowering local policymaking

Basing our Centre at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, gives us direct access to academics and experts in the fields of law, governance, policy and other subjects. We work with them to publish regular expert briefings, which translate academic research for board members to help them in the transition to net zero.

Last year, we collaborated with Dr Samuel Ruiz-Tagle, Research Associate in Administrative Law and Governance, on a briefing which highlights the importance of local action in the transition to net zero, particularly in the context of planning law and the (then) Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill in the UK. The briefing underscores the critical role that local planning authorities play in addressing climate change, despite historical challenges in effectiveness due to various reasons, including administrative capacity issues.

In the briefing, Ruiz-Tagle wrote: “Most of the time it is local authorities that are actually making the decisions in concrete development proposals; they need more support and resources because the decisions made at the local level have immediate impact on that community.”

He collaborated with independent cross-party parliamentary group Peers for the Planet to propose amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. The proposed amendments would have required planning authorities to give ‘special regard’ to climate change mitigation and adaptation in plan-making and planning decisions. “Special regard” is a legal concept and is already used within the planning application process. In England there is currently a statutory duty on those making planning decisions to give “special regard” to the desirability of preserving buildings or elements of buildings that may have historic interest.

The amendments were declined by the Government, who nonetheless conceded that a duty on the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – to consider climate change when preparing and modifying the new National Development Management Policies (NDMPs) – should be included in legislation. This is a step in the right direction, but its impact is yet to be seen.

Developing a replicable framework for local action

Our Centre recently started work on a project aimed at developing a governance framework to support local authorities in achieving net zero emissions. This initiative, funded under Innovate UK’s ‘Net Zero Living Programme,’ seeks to align local efforts with national greenhouse gas accounting protocols and to unlock private sector net zero investment locally. The project is particularly noteworthy as it addresses the critical role of local government leadership and place-based actions in tackling the climate crisis, as emphasised by the Skidmore Review of the UK’s net zero strategy.

The project exemplifies effective local climate action through its collaborative approach. It is led by Cambridgeshire County Council working with a wide range of partners to create the framework including: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, Cambridge City Council, East Cambridgeshire District Council, Huntingdonshire District Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, and Collaborate CIC.

Uniting communities

The transition to net zero is undeniably a monumental task, requiring the concerted effort of all sectors of society. While national policies provide the overarching direction, it is the local initiatives that translate lofty goals into tangible outcomes. The ability of local actions to unite communities around a shared goal, especially in times of political division, cannot be overstated. It is at the local level that the battle against climate change becomes a communal journey towards a sustainable future.

Three recommendations

  1. Implement policies that clearly define and strengthen the roles and responsibilities of local governments in climate action, ensuring they have the necessary authority and resources to develop and implement effective local net zero strategies.
  2. Increase funding and direct it in a more streamlined and consistent way to encourage local government to adopt a long-term outlook, and to provide confidence to investors.
  3. Foster stronger collaboration between local, regional, and national governments, alongside partnerships with the private sector, academia, and communities, to share best practices, knowledge, and resources for efficient and effective climate action at the local level.

About the authors

Sophy Bristow is a Senior Researcher working within the Knowledge Brokering team at the Centre for Climate Engagement (CCE) to provide strategic insight and research to support content outputs for the CCE and Climate Governance Initiative. Sophy has nearly twenty years of experience working across climate change and clean air policy for a range of academic, non-profit and international organisations.  Twitter/X: @ClimateHughes   LinkedIn

Image Credit: Brian Clifford, Shutterstock