Copenhagen or not, we have local responsibilities

Expectations for Copenhagen have been a swinging pendulum over the last few weeks.  Obama is going…he’s not going.  We’ll have legally binding agreements…we won’t have legally binding agreements.  In this uncertainty, the LGA held a timely debate earlier this week called Copenhagen: can we turn global talks into action on the ground? The panel was suitably expert to stimulate thought and incite intense frustration (or maybe that’s just me).

Richard Kemp (Deputy Chair, LGA) started off the discussion with a sobering figure on the high percentage of people who still think climate change isn’t caused by humans.  Then Chris Church (Low Carbon Communities Network) told a similarly upsetting anecdote of doing a training session in a district authority where a group of councillors came together and said that the council shouldn’t do anything about climate change as it’s not an issue.  This points to one of the main issues with the role that councils play in the UK’s response to climate change: we need politicians who aren’t afraid to make a tough decision that might only realise benefits after their time in office.  (It would also help if they accepted the causes of climate change in the first place.)

In my work in PAS I’ve come across more than one case where planners have recommended planning permission for renewable energy developments only to see it turned down by councillors.  The common case is windfarms.  I’ll admit to having serious concerns about windfarms and their impact on the environment.  But, if you don’t want windfarms in your area, then you need to encourage alternatives like Combined Heat and Power, solar, tidal or whatever else is appropriate in your area.  We need local leadership to promote policies and development that are appropriate to local circumstances.  And of course there is the obvious and necessary need to reduce the amount of energy needed and used through transportation, households and non-domestic buildings.  All of this can be done locally through the planning system.

Jeremy Beecham (Vice Chair of the LGA) admitted to being a reluctant convert to nuclear energy in his closing remarks to the LGA debate.  I interpret this to mean that he is aware that the solutions to climate change aren’t perfect, and the technology isn’t perfect.  But we need to make the best decisions that we can with the information and technology that we have now.  Whatever comes out of Copenhagen, local authority councillors will have just as much of a duty to act on climate change and take the necessary decisions to meet the UK’s target as central government politicians.  Their ability or inability to react in time will be just as significant.

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