In the UK’s journey to net zero, action is needed to reduce emissions from every sector, including the public sector. And within the public sector, action is needed from the largest divisions to the smallest – including local authorities. With jurisdiction over key facets of daily life such as local transportation, spatial planning, social housing, and energy efficiencies, these smallest levels of government could play a significant role in the climate crisis, argues Dr. Katherine Sugar.

Artistic Edinburgh cityscape

Until recently, Dr. Sugar was a researcher in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences and University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, working on issues of urban climate governance. She is now joining the University of Manchester as part of the Energy Demand Research Centre to further investigate place-based approaches to deliver net zero goals. She is interested in how entities such as local government and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can contribute to decarbonizing energy systems in the UK, especially at the local level.  

Local actors, national impacts 

So far in the UK, most progress towards net zero has been made on decarbonizing electricity. In 2023, renewable energy accounted for 43% of the energy mix, coming largely from wind power. In Scotland, the share of renewables is even higher at 57%. But while we have made a lot of progress already on decarbonizing our energy systems in the UK, we still have a ways to go, especially in the realms of heating and transportation, if we are to meet the national goal of net zero by 2050. And local authorities can help us get there.  

Local authorities are responsible for delivering a range of services for people, businesses, and schools within a certain area. The most common form of local authority are councils, which constitute a group of publicly-elected councillors who work with people and local businesses to set and act on local priorities. Across the UK, there are 21 county councils and 164 district, borough, and city councils. Additionally, since 2009 there has been a newer form of local authority known as a combined authority, where two or more councils work together to deliver on issues relevant at a regional scale. 

Dr. Sugar’s research has highlighted local authorities as a vehicle for change because she believes that “they are frequently the connective tissue between micro-scale small group action and macro-scale states and markets.” The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that councils can have some level of impact on over 80% of an area’s emissions, as well as direct impact on about 30% of emissions. The LGA also reports on a government study finding that local climate action would achieve net zero by 2050 for half the cost of a national approach, while delivering three times the financial returns.  

Local authorities recognize the importance of achieving net zero and are willing to play their part, with over 300 councils thus far declaring a climate emergency. The National Audit Office even found that nearly two-thirds of councils in England are planning to reach 100% clean energy production 20 years before the UK’s national goal of 2050.  

A place-based energy system in action: Bristol City Leap 

As the government institution closest to the public, local authorities are well placed to deliver energy systems that suit their constituents and make the most of their local contexts. An example of such a place-based local energy plan is Bristol City Leap – a joint venture partnership between Bristol City Council, Ameresco, and Vattenfall Heat UK, and also a key case study in Dr. Sugar’s research. The partnership facilitates the investment of over £1 billion into renewable energy and decarbonised heat for the city of Bristol.  

The project will include installation of solar panels at local schools, more energy-efficient social housing, and community-owned renewable energy projects. It further aims to deliver social value to the city by bringing in 1,000 new jobs that are guaranteed to earn at least the real living wage. Eligible Bristol locals can apply for the Bright Green Homes initiative, which funds installation of various energy-efficient and low-carbon technologies in households. These include cavity wall insulation, loft insulation, air source heat pumps and solar PV. 

What challenges do local authorities face in developing local energy plans? 

Local authorities face several barriers to enacting local energy plans. Dr. Sugar points out that in the UK, councils don’t have any direct mandates for energy or carbon budgeting. Instead, the most common form of climate funding for local projects requires application and competition between councils, leaving them unable to enact their carefully considered plans if they are unsuccessful in winning bids for funding.  

There is also a lack of strategic direction on how local councils fit into the UK government’s net zero plans, limiting the capacity of councils and other forms of local government to make changes to the energy systems of their local areas. Councils often lack clarity on what is within their remit on climate action, which reduces capacity for long-term planning on energy systems. Furthermore, continued austerity measures coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic increased the resource pressure that local councils are already facing. 

Solutions for local authority action 

Dr. Sugar’s work focuses on moving beyond barriers and into solutions. “It’s well established that local authorities have barriers in terms of funding, knowledge, and personnel, among others. But what isn’t known is how we can overcome that.”  

And that is exactly what Dr. Sugar and co-author Professor Janette Webb, Professor of Sociology of Organisations at the University of Edinburgh, aimed to investigate in a 2022 study on local authority action on clean energy for net zero.  

The study emphasizes the use of a ‘place-specific,’ rather than a ‘place-agnostic’ approach to net zero initiatives. This would involve incorporating local knowledge to a greater degree, as well as local investment, skills, and delivery. The study argues that this approach would stimulate and make better use of local employment and skills, as well as reinforce social bonds within communities, which in turn could help to stimulate economic regeneration. 

Because budgetary and capacity constraints are often two of the major barriers for local authorities in establishing local energy projects, a two-step approach of 1) an injection of government funding into local authority initiatives, followed by 2) a scheme for project development assistance could help get local projects off the ground and starting to realize benefits. 

Furthermore, Dr. Sugar and Professor Webb’s research found that investment into project development assistance could result in a range of benefits, such as helping to get projects off the ground, ability to replicate and scale up after grant funding ends, improving low carbon and energy efficiency supply chains, and ability to encompass a wide range of local energy technology and projects.  

Dr. Sugar also emphasizes the importance of a just approach to shifting our energy systems: “if we’re going to become more low carbon, we need to make sure it’s done in an equitable way and not further exacerbating inequalities.”  

What is next for Dr. Sugar?  

As part of her role at University of Manchester, Dr. Sugar is now turning her attention to the role of procurement in decarbonization, funded by the Connected Places Catapult: “About £300 billion per annum is spent on public procurement in the UK alone. That’s a huge amount of money and we need to start thinking about how procurement can help us in this transition to net zero.” 

Along with other early career researchers and the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), Dr. Sugar is investigating how public procurement and place-based investments can support the implementation of net zero targets at the local authority, community, and business level. 

Although local authorities are small, they can play a mighty role in the UK’s fight against climate change. Dr. Sugar’s future work will expand upon these previous research efforts to learn more about how we can utilize mechanisms such as governance structures, procurement models, and research to help entities like local businesses and councils to decarbonize their activities. 

Further reading

Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN)

The University of Edinburgh’s dedicated climate institute, ECCI, has been helping to deliver an initiative to boost climate action in Edinburgh, Belfast and Leeds. The Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN) helps the UK meet its climate targets by catalysing cross-sector action and increasing the flow of green finance. Read ECCI’s recent report on what the future look like for place-based climate governance.