Adapting to survive – What did COP26 achieve?

Laura Hughes, partner at Browne Jacobson, discusses the key takeaways for local government at November’s COP26

As the dust settles on COP26 many have reflected on the successes for local government in terms of their presence, recognition and influence at the Conference.

For example, the Local Government Association called for a specific day at COP26 for local government, and 11 November 2021 was duly designated the Cities, Regions and the Built Environment Day. The LGA attended COP26 and had a presence in both the green (public facing) zone and the blue (UN) zone, hosting a number of events.

Ahead of COP26 the government published its Net Zero Strategy ‘Build Back Greener’. The strategy has a section, part 4v on Local Climate Action. Paragraph 10 indicates that the government wants ‘to continue to empower our local leaders to take the actions which will lead to the biggest gains in emissions reduction, including the potential opportunities in building back greener and meeting our ambitions to level up the country’.

Andy Burnham, the elected Mayor for Manchester, spoke in the main conference session and urged central government to ‘have the courage to let go, to hand the baton to cities and regions’ as ‘this is a race which can only truly be won from the bottom up’.

The final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact which emerged from COP26 explicitly recognises the important role of local communities and civil society in addressing and responding to climate change; and highlights the need for multilevel and cooperative action.  

Local Government took action and spoke out, and on the face of it the UK government and the Conference of Parties itself took note.  Whilst it remains to be seen how much of what is in the Net Zero Strategy around rationalisation of funding streams, and greater working together between central and local government comes to pass, there does seem to be collective agreement that local government is key to reducing our reliance on carbon, and achieving net zero.

However, COP26 had four key themes. Whilst three of the themes (securing global net-zero by mid century, mobilising finance and working together to deliver) are engaged in the section of the Net Zero Strategy on Local Climate Action, the fourth, adaptation, is notably absent. Indeed, adaptation is not mentioned more than minimally in the whole of the Net Zero Strategy.  

Adaptation was though a key output in the Glasgow Climate Pact, with the Conference noting ‘with serious concern’ the adverse impact of increasing temperatures on people and nature. It ‘emphasises’ the ‘urgency of scaling up action and support’ to ‘enhance adaptive capacity, strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change’ and ‘urges parties to further integrate adaptation into local, national and regional planning’.

What it the government policy on adaptation? The Climate Change Act put in place a policy framework to promote adaptation in the UK, which includes publication of a National Adaptation Programme, on a five yearly basis and which was last was published in 2018.

The 2018 National Adaptation Programme does have a chapter on local government. It talks in similar terms to the Net Zero Strategy about how adaptation can best be done at the local level, and about how the government will drive collaboration between central and local government. The language used is already outdated three years on, and the content is short on detail. So where are we on adaptation.

Storm Arwen has demonstrated we still have some way to go. At the time of writing, some 18.500 homes are still affected in Northumberland and have no power and water, some six days after the storm hit. Northumberland County Council is currently operating 12 community hubs offering a variety of hot food and drinks, hot showers, warmth (basically somewhere to sit out of the cold), and phone charging, and taking various other steps to manage the situation.  

All of this has been happening in late November/early December when temperatures have been sub zero on a daily basis. Little of the seriousness of this situation is being reported in the national media. It has not even been properly addressed by a government minister. There has certainly been no government support for the people affected.

Those living in the areas affected would say that this lack of reaction to serious events in the north is not uncommon (no wonder the levelling up agenda is met with scepticism in the north). For the most part, they have confidence in their local authorities to deliver on both net zero ambitions, and on adaptation. But they would also say that local authorities cannot do it alone and that government cannot simply hand responsibility over to local areas with little or no additional support.

Local government has shown itself able to get its voice heard so that the value of local delivery is addressed. Unless it wants more cases like that currently playing out in the north, it now needs to make some noise about government resourcing and supporting adaptation efforts properly at the local level.

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