How are local authorities responding to climate change?

  • The storms and floods this spring, and the long period of extreme heat this summer – all record-breaking weather events – are urgent reminders that COVID-19 is not the only global emergency local authorities must respond to
  • Local authorities lead on community resilience to climate change now, and in the future
  • Understanding the climate impact in council areas and working to reduce it, alongside understanding the physical risks, and working to improve resilience to them, are crucial

Over two-thirds of UK local authorities have declared a climate emergency. Declaring an emergency is more than an acknowledgment of the consequences of a heating earth and the parts humans play on climate change: it is a commitment to urgent action on mitigation and adaptation, and recognition of the leadership role of local government to shape places sustainably.

Local authorities can build climate adaptation and mitigation, responding to increased public and legislative expectations, through partnerships, community engagement, infrastructure strategies, education and sustainable services.

Carbon reduction

Many local authorities have set a stretching zero carbon target of 2030, some at 2040, while the Greater London Authority (with many complex challenges in the capital) is aiming for the same 2050 target as Government.

Acting in partnership with councils, emergency services are interpreting their duties under this commitment in different ways. However, common to all are actions to reduce carbon emissions to zero by a locally designated date.

For example, Avon Fire and Rescue Service had a target to reduce carbon emissions from its sites and operations by 50 per cent by 2020 and 65 per cent by 2030. However, by 2018/19, the Service had exceeded the 2020 target. It is now considering a net zero emissions target by 2030, in line with councils in the fire service area.

Strategy and scrutiny

Obvious wins for all authorities include buying (and creating and storing) renewable energy and converting fleets to electric only. But commitment goes much further and deeper across all functions and services at all levels.

Fundamental to creating a climate change culture is to bring all strategic decisions, budgets and approaches in line with a shift to zero carbon and climate resilience. This includes planning decisions, council investments, pensions and tenders. Local authorities can be exemplars in these strategies.

Scrutiny, reporting and reviewing is essential for progress. Political and leadership teams should lead from the top, embedding this work in all areas, taking responsibility for reducing – rapidly – carbon emissions and creating resilience. They should also take the lead in local partnerships on mitigation, adaptation and response to physical events.

“Local government sits at the heart of managing climate change. Chief executives and councillors can make a huge difference to the communities they serve,” says Rod Penman, Head of Public Services for Zurich Municipal.


We are seeing an increase in extreme weather events and how we respond and take learnings from each event must build our resilience continuously. Resilience building runs through the way we conduct business planning, respond to emergencies and assess risk.

Community resilience is dependent on collaborative rapid response and recovery support locally. There will be increasing reliance on immediate, effective and well-funded emergency planning and business continuity from public bodies and essential services. Learnings from the COVID-19 crisis may improve capabilities in an extreme weather emergency.

Direct impacts can be measured in settled lands disappearing under the sea, or to drought and desertification, but there are also consequential social and economic impacts. Current disparities in wealth, health and lifespan will increase without intervention.

Globally and nationally, geographical areas of deprivation are proven to be more prone to negative climate change effects. These communities require urgent and meaningful interventions to become resilient.

Some areas – predominantly coastal, with low populations – have been identified as too uneconomic to save as climate warming escalates. Without place-shaping strategies, certain geographical areas and the people within them, could become disconnected and vulnerable.

Older people and established communities are less able to change and need support to adapt to new ways of living and new lives elsewhere. Risks are associated with higher demand on council provision of services like housing and care, along with increased use of health services. Vulnerable communities will rely more on emergency services too.

As part of the local authority network, emergency services face action on similar timescales to councils, but experience different and additional challenges. As frontline forces they need the capacity, resources and skills to meet the changing response demands of extreme weather and natural events. For example in 2018 outdoor fires linked to a long, hot, dry summer alone resulted in a 28 per cent increase in fire service response.

How can we help?

Zurich Municipal’s recent whitepaper, The Climate Change Challenge, explores the climate change challenges and opportunities facing public and voluntary sector organisations, and how the risks involved in making this transition can be managed.