The Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) works with UK communities to secure access to environmental justice for all. We do this through advice and information, public legal education, and policy work. A charity, ELF helps vulnerable communities have a voice in decisions that affect their environment and quality of life and that of future generations.
Over the past 29 years, we have established a cross-disciplinary network of lawyers and technical consultants who, each year, provide thousands of hours of pro bono advice and assistance to communities and individuals who have nowhere else to turn to address their environmental concerns. This has been joined by our growing networks of pro bono environmental legal advice clinics and, most recently, policy clinics, in partnership with universities across the UK.
Our enquiries cover a broad range of issues such as noise, odours or air pollution from industrial and domestic sources, and the loss of urban green spaces to development, for example, all of which can negatively impact people’s well-being and quality of life. We see a clear link between environmental and social justice.
Many of the issues we deal with have a climate change element. We are aware of good examples of action to address the climate emergency by communities and local authorities but wanted to establish a clearer national overview. In particular, many local authorities have made a Climate Emergency Declaration (CED)
and we have been researching action around CEDs across the country. ELF’s resulting report, Local urgency on the climate emergency?
, was published in October 2021, prior to COP26.
The report was the culmination of a nine-month research project conducted via ELF’s network of university-based policy clinics. Eight universities, plus members of the UK Environmental Law Association
student working party, researched the different regions of the UK. There is no set definition of a CED. Broadly, they are declarations by governments and organisations that humanity is facing a climate emergency, and that urgent action is required to address climate change and its potentially irreversible effects.
Overall, 376 local authorities across the UK were reviewed, identifying that around 79 per cent have made CEDs. The South West had the highest percentage of CEDs and the East Midlands the lowest. However, the research also found that most councils without a CED were still taking action to address the climate emergency, although the act of making a CED can help to galvanise action to implement effective change.
On climate change action, local authorities’ main areas of focus tend to cover transport, energy, buildings/land use (planning) and waste. The research identified many examples of local authority actions in these areas that will help them move towards their CED ambitions. However, it’s also recognised that local authorities have a much wider sphere of influence in effecting change across their communities and they will need to draw on this as the actions necessary involve adjustments across society.
Effective public engagement will play an important role. However, our research identified that in many cases the clarity, accessibility and availability of information on local authority action to address the climate emergency is lacking. In particular, there is a need for clearly mapped pathways with milestones and monitoring for greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It is clear that local authorities would benefit from assistance in improving the transparency and accessibility of this information.
So, too, with the involvement of local communities. While some local authorities have reached out to and are involving their communities in the development of their action plans, for example, there are many that do not appear to have done so. In turn, this raises questions about how engaged local communities are likely to be with the changes identified, in addition to any formal public participation requirements.
There are also a number of co-benefits from action to address the climate emergency, such as improved public health from better air quality or enhanced biodiversity. Many of these are highlighted by local authorities in their work around CEDs and further help to broaden public engagement.
However, while the report highlights a number of examples of positive action by local authorities, it is clear that in many instances the action does not match the rhetoric. In order to meet the urgency of the climate emergency declared by local and national government, there needs to be a step change in the way in which these declarations are treated within their decision-making processes. Without it, there is a risk that CEDs simply become worthless political statements, but, more importantly, that the opportunity for effective action will be missed.
It is clear that central government action around policy and funding to enhance such work is required. ELF hopes that reports such as this help to make the case for such support. We will continue to work with local communities, councils and other stakeholders to help address the climate emergency.
This is the first column of a regular series by the Environmental Law Foundation, updating Legal Action readers on its work with communities seeking access to environmental justice.