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ClientEarth challenges local authorities to address climate change

Words: Laura Edgar
Carbon emissions must be reduced / iStock-1125912679

An environmental law firm has warned local authorities across England that they will ‘violate’ their legal obligations and risk legal challenge if they do not introduce ‘proper’ climate change plans.

ClientEarth is writing to 100 local authorities that are in the process of developing a new local plan. They will be given eight weeks to explain how they will set evidence-based carbon reduction targets and guarantee that these targets are central to their planning policy.

Local authorities across the UK have declared climate emergencies. Huw Morris's research in the September issue of The Planner (page 4) found that 207 local and public authorities with a planning function have declared climate emergencies since Bristol City Council first did so in 2018. In addition, 22 of 36 metropolitan councils, 14 of 27 county councils and 22 of 33 London boroughs have declared climate emergencies.

ClientEarth launched the campaign in light of what it considers to be a “massive shortfall” in compliant local planning policy as well as to advise local authorities of the legal duties under planning and environmental law.

ClientEarth climate lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said there is a “collective failure” by local authorities across England to plan adequately for climate change.

“Too often climate change is perceived to be just a national or international issue and therefore solely the responsibility of central government.

“Clearly central government needs to do more, as the recent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) progress reports stress. Yet so many of the daily decisions around new and existing infrastructure – such as new buildings, roads and utilities – are made at the local level. All of these decisions will ‘lock in’ an area’s future emissions and its resilience to climate change.

“Scientists warn that we have 10 years to transform our economies and avoid catastrophic climate change, but decisions that will have ramifications for decades are being made now by authorities with no idea if these decisions are consistent with national and international commitments to limit emissions.”

Hunter Jones highlights that the CCC has criticised the UK's “continued failure” to take action on emissions from buildings and transport, two sectors where local planning plays a “critical role”.

While local authorities face difficult economic conditions, Hunter Jones explained that there are substantial benefits to climate-sensitive planning, such as improving local economies and creating jobs.

“Climate action at a local level can transform people’s quality of life for the better, with clear net benefits to health, air and water quality, employment, energy affordability, community cohesion and biodiversity.”

The climate lawyers have written to councillors and planning officers from areas that are revising their local plans to remind them of their legal responsibilities, which include setting targets and policies based on the local potential to reduce emissions and are in line with the UK’s Climate Change Act.

The Climate Change Act was recently altered with a target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Client Earth said that for carbon targets to be meaningful, they need to be incorporated into local planning policy as a core objective against which all other policies and decisions will be tested.

Local planning authorities also need to monitor performance against local targets at least annually, insisted the lawyers.

“Each and every planning decision taken today must be in line with long-term climate goals, because what and how we build today will determine our climate impact and resilience in the crucial decades to come,” Hunter Jones concluded.

A list of the local authorities can be found on the ClientEarth website. 

Read more:

Report: UK can be more ambitious on climate change 

Image credit | iStock