Councils are taking the lead on climate change: This is how businesses should respond

Businesses need to adapt to increased council regulation and growing pressure from local communities and develop a suitable sustainability programme for strategic advantage. Over the past year, more than half of all councils in the UK have declared a climate emergency and this trend is likely to continue.

Councils declare a ‘climate emergency’

Last year, Bristol and Manchester became the first local authorities to declare a climate emergency. Since then over 200 councils have followed their stead and on May 1st the government announced to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In July 2019, the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn called on councils to take the lead in cutting carbon and warned that climate change will not be dealt with “from above by people sitting in offices in Whitehall and Westminster alone”. Local government and local communities are vital.

Councils are  vital in the fight against climate change, as they have the local knowledge and relationships with local communities to facilitate quick climate action. This is crucial as cities, responsible for 80% of UK’s carbon emissions, need to respond much faster. The pressure to act is coming from more than just the science, people are demanding action from their local councils across areas such as transport, energy, waste, and housing.

Figure 1. Timeline of council climate action from October 2018 to August 2019

Climate action so far 

Many councils have made a public announcement and declared a ‘climate emergency’. But what does this actually mean?

Most of their pledges and aims vary widely. Some councils have set a 2030 target – 20 years ahead of the central government’s 2050 target. While many others haven’t set a target at all (figure 2).

Stroud, for example, has had a big focus on global warming since the 1990s, and was, in 2015, the first local authority in Europe to go carbon neutral. Nottingham has ambitiously set a carbon neutral target for 2028, and every new council building will have solar panels.

On the contrary, Manchester explicitly excludes flight emissions from their carbon management plan, while the council has a part share in the airport. Cumbria council even approved a new coalmine.

Amongst all this confusion there is growing pressure from local communities, interest groups, and activists which is increasingly placing more emphasis on businesses setting meaningful and stretching climate targets.

Figure 2. (a) Councils which have declared a climate emergency. Red shades are to distinguish council from each other and do not indicate the council’s ambition. (b) Climate targets by councils which have declared a climate emergency. Blue indicates a 2030 net zero target, green Data is a 2050 net zero target and yellow indicates that no target is set. Data is derived from and is last updated on 15 July 2019.

Given the range in council’s ambitions, how should business respond?

The uncertainty surrounding local, regional and national approaches to setting specific climate targets, along with the growing council pressure to act can cause confusion for businesses with nationwide operations. In order to gain clarity and reduce confusion, here are some simple steps to take.

1. Engage internal stakeholder to build the case for change

Internal stakeholder engagement is essential in transforming your climate targets into a powerful response. Engage and educate employees to create a sustainable culture in your business. This will help to build a strong business case for change. Define the company’s long-term purpose, make sustainability visible inside the company and create sustainable practices with employees.

2. Review what your competitors, clients and suppliers are doing

Reviewing the sustainability baseline performance is essential before setting your sustainability strategy. Know what your competitors are doing, and what your clients are expecting. Map your supply chain by identifying how your suppliers are performing.

3. Set your vision

Designing an ambitious vision on sustainability which is suitable for the needs and requirements of your business is challenging as there are a lot of pathways to choose from. Think about where your business wants to be in the long-term future. Is it most important to you to halve your emissions, be the most carbon efficient business in your sector or to be aligned with the Paris Agreement?

4. Consider aligning with a respected and established framework such as the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi).

With so many options on the table, and with multiple councils opting for different strategies, aligning with a well-respected and scientifically robust framework such as the SBTi will enable you to cut through the noise and follow a well-established methodology.

5. Set targets and build your strategy by assessing your emissions scopes and understand the ability and feasibility to reduce or offset emissions.

Understanding of the source of your emissions (scope 1,2 or 3) is the essential first step in reducing them. Ideally, businesses should aim to include all scopes in their strategy, but scope 3 emissions may need to be assessed in more depth to understand your ability to exert control.  Understanding the areas that you can impact is pivotal in setting the initial scope of boundary.

Please take a look at some of our other blogs to help you with this step:

6. Launch your commitment and monitor your progress

Ensure you have the right infrastructure in place to monitor and report your progress. Are you collecting the right data, and do you trust your numbers? Are you getting various requests for data?

As more councils declare emergencies and set different targets, having an established strategy and a “one version of the trust” data set will ensure your business can respond to ad-hoc requests, whilst still pursuing a credible reduction goal.

Contact Us

Setting a strategy is the start of the journey, the real hard work is enacting, enabling and mobilising your business to enable it to successfully operate in an uncertain future. Contact us if you would like to know more about setting a credible strategy, collecting and reporting data, or optimising your assets. With the right level of ambition and carbon intelligence you can ensure your business is at the forefront of the climate movement.

Please email for more information or to have a chat with one of our experts.