In the yawning gap between national action and what is needed to stop climate breakdown, a rapid rise of local and city level activism is growing a revolution from below. From almost nowhere, local authorities in the UK, for example, have started declaring ‘climate emergencies’ and committing to plans genuinely in line with meeting climate targets.

When the small Welsh market town of Machynlleth became the first council in the UK to declare a “climate emergency” in late 2018, it was viewed as laudable but not altogether surprising. It is after all the home of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), a green energy research centre dating back to 1973, and a pioneer of zero carbon strategies. But following swiftly after Machynlleth came Bradford, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Norwich, London – a flow of less likely rebels pouring through an apparently burst dam of pent up urgent climate action by local authorities. It was obvious that something new, different and rapid was happening.

Within just three months, 40 had signed the pledge – representing over 17 million people between them in the UK and more than 34 million in the US, Australia, Canada and Switzerland. A growing wave of local action was emerging from the inertia of national governments. People were pressuring their councils at the local, district and regional level to respond on the ground to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5 degrees Global Warming. Its stark warning was that emissions must peak by 2020, and the gap closed by 2030 between current commitments and what is required to keep us on track with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees. As the climate emergency declarations began, that meant just 12 years to transform life in towns and cities to avoid catastrophic climate change. Citizens were demanding that councils stop talking in general terms and make concrete commitments to take measurable action. In the UK, a Cumbrian council received a deposition from a 6-year old asking them to take climate change seriously.

Local action is nothing new of course: not including Local Agenda 21s, which grew out of the original 1992 Earth Summit, but are now largely forgotten, a second wave of organised municipal responses to climate change began in 2004, when the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) came into being, impatient with the lack of policy or planning from national governments – and recognising the huge contribution of cities to global emissions. But this was still more of a top-down approach, using the power newly invested in mayors, with economic factors still dominating firmly over environmental and climate considerations.

Like C40, The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, is a global city-led network committed to climate leadership. It builds on the commitment of over 9,000 cities and local governments from six continents and 127 countries representing more than 770 million residents. This impressive gathering comprises cities that have been given local power by their central government. The more recent “climate emergency” movement uses local democracy directly in a new way, being bottom-up rather than top-down. Organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, Climate Mobilization, Council Action in the Climate Emergency (CACE) and Climate Emergency are using fast and fleet methods of grassroots organisation to stimulate direct action and activism on a local, national and international level.

Wider relevance

The local declaration of “climate emergencies” is interesting because it telescopes complex global issues that seem out of reach for ordinary people down into everyday actions we need to take. It is also relatively cheap and fast. The structures to make change happen, to pay for it and to evaluate it already exist to some extent in most places around the world. Local government is used to delivering real services for people. These systems just need to be redirected to benefit nature as well as humans – which requires a shift in thinking. A climate emergency declaration issued by a body in authority can be a powerful catalyst for change.

National governments struggle with taking decisions that influence behavioural choices at the very local level, because it requires community belief in, and support for, the need for reform. Yet, when the courage to reform is found, change can soon follow. Driven by people locally, the “climate emergency” strategy enables and empowers change to become widespread much more quickly. It comes from within communities and can even bring a sense of relief; a chance to make a difference when most people feel powerless, at the mercy of forces outside their control. It’s another form of “taking back control”.

The choice of the term “climate emergency” is interesting in itself. There has been a distinct avoidance of “emergency” language from national governments everywhere, despite the fact that scientific evidence regularly points to a disastrous future on current trends and rates of action. People in highly organised societies with a clear rule of law, expect an emergency announcement from the authorities when there is a life-threatening situation. But they often hesitate to take action themselves if no one else appears to be taking the threat seriously. For example, when a fire alarm goes off, it’s only when someone believable says the fire is real that everyone drops what they are doing and runs for the door. Perhaps the use of “emergency” language helps to break through the bystander effect – where people fail to act because they think someone else is doing it – and allows people to take action where they normally might be reticent.

For a council to have called a ‘climate emergency’, commonly advanced guidelines say that they must have:

  • used these specific words in a motion or executive decision;
  • they must set a target date to reduce their local climate impacts consistent with the IPCC Report;
  • they must set up a working group to report within a short timescale;
  • and they must engage with a cross section of the community

So far, councils’ pledges and aims have varied enormously. For example, Scarborough council has committed to a target of zero carbon emissions by 2030, and will seek up to £80,000 in funding over two years for a sustainability officer to help achieve their goals. Meanwhile, Liverpool City Council deleted all references to declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ and many of the suggested actions to be taken. Its plan has no stated target, no timeline and no budget. In Lancaster a Citizen’s Assembly is being set up as part of their process; this is a deliberative process in which a representative group of citizens selected at random from the population, learn about, discuss, and make recommendations in relation to a particular issue or set of issues.

When in “emergency mode”, councils must allocate discretionary funds towards climate action. That includes things such as educating the community, advocating for action from higher level governments, mitigating and building resilience against the impacts of climate change, and funding or undertaking the planning and research needed to implement full state and national emergency mobilisation. Although councils do not have large amounts of discretionary funding, in total this could add up to a significant amount. Just 1.8% of total government spending currently goes on the environment. Public emergencies also tend to speed up action, bringing out neighbourhood spirit, mutual aid and compassionate action – think of how communities react to neighbourhood flooding and other disasters often with great generosity by organising shelter and food for strangers.

Context and Background

Efforts to respond at the global level by national governments have remained firmly out of step and behind the science describing necessary action. In 2016, 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement – committing to ambitious efforts to keep global average temperature rise to well below 2 ̊C above pre-industrial levels, and to attempt to limit temperature rise to 1.5 ̊C. The Paris Agreement also commits to increasing the resilience of countries to the impacts of climate change. It seemed as if the world’s policymakers were at last listening to the scientists. By July 2018, 175 countries had ratified the agreement, accounting for over 88% of total global emissions. But, only 16 of the signatories managed to set goals for cuts that will enable them to achieve their targets. The US, at the Federal level, currently sees the Agreement as such a threat to their economy that they plan to withdraw in 2020, and the US alone accounts for over 17% of global emissions.

Previously, when national governments have shown such a lack of vision and leadership, cities have stepped up around the world to try and fill the void. In 2004, conversations between the mayors of London, Stockholm, Toronto and San Francisco resulted in the formation of what became the C40 group. Its aim was that every city should have developed and begun implementing a climate action plan with a deadline of 2020, to deliver action consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement. A series of EU and UN city-led groupings eventually morphed into The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, an alliance of cities and local governments with similar aims.

The rise of such municipal activism has come largely in response to inaction from above; fed up with waiting for policy change, people have accepted individual responsibility locally and taken group action to secure a better future. Estimates suggest that cities are responsible for 75 percent of global CO2 emissions. However, they have historically focused on technological experiments, particularly in relation to energy production and consumption. Their environmental policies and plans tend to be incremental and voluntary rather than mandatory and transformational.

Town and village-led initiatives such as Transition Towns have also grown quickly in the void left by government apathy. It started in 2006 in the UK town of Totnes when two students of a permaculture teacher designed a system for towns to encourage self sufficiency as a response to climate change. The movement is now vast, with hubs in 30 countries; there are no official figures for membership because the groups are encouraged to spread virally.

The current series of moves by local councils fits better with this latter model, than with the organised, planned approach of the cities. Local authorities, who in the UK are increasingly being asked to shoulder the burden of servicing society’s needs, are responding directly to citizens’ demands by using the power they have been given in unexpected ways.

Enabling factors

A series of events in the second half of 2018 set up the perfect conditions for local activism on climate change in the UK in particular. The IPCC revealed that despite committing through the Paris Agreement to begin mitigation, most countries have done little to bring about change. The US Democratic Party called for “a national social and economic mobilization” to “address the Climate Emergency” and “restore a safe climate;” and at the COP24 climate talks in Poland, British wildlife guru David Attenborough earlier made an impassioned speech warning:

If we don’t take action the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”.

In the UK, arguments about Brexit seemed to eclipse any other subject, including pressing climate concerns, increasing public frustration and a sense of powerlessness. The Extinction Rebellion movement organised a blockade of London’s bridges with the aim of getting as many people arrested as possible. People who might not previously have considered taking such radical action, were taking part in on-street action.

In the USA, the organisation Climate Mobilisation used the Trump administration’s outspoken denial of manmade climate change as a rallying call. Montgomery County in Maryland had already voted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2027 – and 100 percent by 2035. Other jurisdictions joined in with them, setting their own targets but focused largely on the Paris Agreement.

California, for example, understands its vulnerability to climate change in the form of drought, wildfires and flooding. A 2015 scientific study estimated that global warming “accounted for 8–27% of the observed drought anomaly in the state in 2012–2014”. The state aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. To reach this, they will be setting benchmarks for developing green enterprise zones, renewable energy, cultivating food locally, restoring biodiversity, planting more trees and emphasising walkability, low-carbon transportation and zero waste.

This form of localism is only possible in places where democracy operates at a local level. The UK has an ancient – and underused – system of parish councils that could be reinvigorated to feed into local policy more effectively. Other European countries have similar systems – many with more local power than in the UK. The Panchayat Raj system of local governance in India with its village assemblies or examples of participatory budgeting in Brazil suggest examples of parallels elsewhere that could be tapped into for more effective local climate action.

Scope and evidence

  • Populations covered by governments that have declared a ‘climate emergency’ now exceed 31 million citizens in four English-speaking countries and Switzerland, with 17 million of these living in the United Kingdom.
  • Signatories to a “climate emergency” pledge to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 40% by 2030.
  • The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy is an alliance committed to climate leadership, building on the commitment of over 9,000 cities and local governments from six continents and 127 countries representing more than 770 million residents. They must commit to targets at least as ambitious – or more so – than their own country’s targets under the Paris Agreement.
  • Deadline 2020 is the first significant routemap for achieving the Paris Agreement, outlining the pace, scale and prioritisation of action needed by C40 member cities over the next 5 years and beyond.
  • As part of Deadline 2020, 72 global cities are committed to delivering on the objectives of Paris Agreement – “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees [Celsius] above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees [Celsius] above pre-industrial levels”.