What can local authorities do in 2021 to respond to the climate emergency?

4 min read

Across the country, nine out of ten local authorities have declared a climate emergency with 80% planning to become carbon neutral ahead of the UK government’s 2050 net zero target. That’s quite a challenge. We know because we reached our ambition to become a net zero carbon business at the end of 2020.

But the year that none of us will ever forget has also ignited aspirations to hit the reset button on society. Huge changes to how we all live, work and travel has sparked a desire to create more sustainable, inclusive and resilient communities. Climate change has been with us many years but as we emerge from the pandemic, the green agenda and the role it will play in kick-starting local economies and communities has never been more important.

Yet, recognising the many challenges to tackling climate change is just the beginning, particularly as many local authorities cite a lack of funding as a major barrier to change alongside a lack of skills and difficulties accessing and understanding the data needed to make informed and effective decisions.

We all know the world we want to live in, so to make this happen local authorities need to move on from looking backwards, trying to capture historic carbon benchmark data and for some, a tendency to think of new and exciting solutions as too impractical. If there’s one thing Covid-19 has taught us it’s that we now have the opportunity to think differently.

So, what does this mean for local authorities? What will carbon neutral towns and cities look like in the future and how can we get there?

Firstly, there needs to be a major shift in thinking away from the demolition of ‘failing’ high streets and neighbourhoods. Rather than solving the problem, knocking things down can mean that little is rebuilt in its place. Is that ‘failing’ high street considered as dying because the current blend of retail and commercial is no longer what the community wants or needs? Could it thrive as a repurposed skills and employment hub attracting SMEs and community groups, as an early years setting or as affordable housing? It’s far better for the environment to repurpose and reimagine existing estates rather than looking to start from scratch.

The current property renewal rate is only 1% across the UK so a key first step would be to make existing local authority estates work smarter and harder. The responsibility for this doesn’t solely lie at the feet of local authorities, for many years the wider construction industry hasn’t actively supported lower carbon retrofit. But now we’re in a better position to know what actions can and need to be taken to deliver positive change.

We need to prioritise the routine repurposing of old buildings over new. Retrofitting could be the norm alongside an understanding of the full lifecycle impacts of new buildings. Where we need new, they can be designed and built as net zero using modern methods of construction and passive and active low carbon solutions.

If local authorities are going to realise their ambitions, sustainability should be right at the core of place recovery. The Blueprint Coalition representing over 100 local authorities, environmental NGOs and academics, has called for retrofitting homes and investment in green infrastructure making it easy for people to walk, cycle and work remotely. These actions along with tree planting, enhanced green spaces and reskilling for green jobs has been named as the top five priorities for action.

Local authorities have huge opportunities to make bold and exciting decisions on how to make their estates work harder. Public places can, for example, be re-imagined through public realm projects to become green spaces, absorbing carbon and encouraging biodiversity. Not only offsetting emissions but positively tipping the balance to biodiversity net gains.

Despite the latest Government announcement around a new infrastructure bank to drive at least £40bn of green investment across the UK, the green agenda remains massively under-resourced. Local authorities will have to keep being imaginative and bold with their existing estates to enable cost savings and generate new revenues.

Could a piece of agricultural land or empty rooftop be transformed into a solar farm? Could an old shopping centre be brought back to life as a wildlife haven such as what is being proposed in Nottingham?

But what else can local authorities do both right now in 2021 and in the longer term?

This month we published our report on how we achieved net zero but we know that to tackle climate change we must all work together. That’s why we included a call to action asking industry and other sectors to take steps to make a difference. Three of the areas of relevance to local authorities include;

Building and Infrastructure

2021: Roll out established, affordable low carbon solutions at pace such as LED lighting and building management systems (BMS) across existing sites and infrastructure. And challenge yourself, your designers and delivery teams to radically go beyond compliance and deliver on a net zero built environment.

In the longer term: Rapidly repurpose existing portfolios/estates to avoid unnecessary embodied carbon impacts of new construction and reduce operational carbon emissions.


2021: Use 2020 as a baseline for business travel emissions and maintain remote working and business travel behaviours. Promote cycling and walking.

In the longer term: Develop a transition plan to electrification through public transport and vehicle use and incorporate electrification and low carbon into the public realm such as with electric charging points. 


2021: Buy renewable power via green tariffs or power purchasing agreements or if they’re not available use renewable energy certificates.

In the longer term: Install large-scale onsite renewable energy solutions such as solar panels.

Yet, despite the major financial challenges the wellbeing and economic benefits to building sustainable, strong, local communities are huge. As a leading international consultancy, Mace delivers projects and programmes with diversity and sustainability at their core. We push the boundaries and by understanding the challenges and unlocking funding we find a way to unleash the potential within every place.