Feature: Why we need local action to tackle our environmental issues 

UK100 explain why local authorities are best placed to deal with environmental issues. 

Local authorities across the country have shown bold leadership by setting Net Zero targets that are decades ahead of the national legislation, but sustained delivery can only happen if the Government lets go of powers and finances.

Council’s have a crucial role in tackling climate change and improving air quality, as convenors and designers of place, with influence over local planning, transport, waste and housing. Local leaders are rooted in their communities and understand local needs and opportunities. This makes them uniquely positioned to deliver a place-based transition to Net Zero which engages and coordinates with local businesses, public institutions and residents and brings jobs and industries to their communities. Local authorities can have a strong influence over emissions, research shows one-third of all UK emissions are dependent on sectors influenced by local government policies or partnerships.  

‘Many of the urgent changes and decisions needed have a strong local dimension. Decarbonising buildings, transport, waste and industry, cutting emissions from agriculture and storing more carbon through land use and forestry are dependent on delivery at a local level’  – Lord Deben, Committee on Climate Change 

There is a growing consensus, even following COP26, that global declarations need to be backed up by local delivery. Committee on Climate Change regards local authority action as critical for meeting our climate targets, as local leaders have a key role in introducing the measures people need to make low-carbon choices, such as constructing cycle paths and bus lanes and increasing the number of bus routes and services to enable a proper choice when travelling around.

Ipsos Mori polling commissioned by UK100 found that 40% of people believe that their local council is best placed to tackle climate change in their local area, compared to 30% believing it is the Government’s responsibility and 19% believing it is down to the individual.1 62% of people surveyed believed there is a need for increased investment to enable safe walking and cycling, and 76% believe that the transition to a green economy offers opportunities for people who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.2 Addressing climate change and air pollution has many social and economic benefits for local communities. Retrofitting social housing reduces fuel poverty, cleaner air improves people’s health and improving public transport networks increases the mobility of people without access to a car, improving access to work, friends and family.  

The solutions to tackling climate change are largely the same ones required to improve air quality, including transitioning from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles, public transport, walking and cycling. DEFRA Air Quality Expert Group’s analysis found that reaching Net Zero emissions would likely lead to a significant improvement in air quality.   

Local authorities have a statutory duty to improve the health of their local population and air pollution is a public health emergency requiring urgent action. Toxic air is linked to one in every nineteen deaths in the U.K, including the death of children like Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. Research has shown that air pollution may be damaging every organ in our bodies, including increasing risk of heart and lung diseases, diabetes and dementia, as well as having negative impacts on the development of children including reduced cognition and leading to babies being born with impaired lungs.  

The IPCC’s latest report highlights that unless the global community halves emissions by 2030 and reaches net zero emissions by 2050, we will experience increasingly extreme heatwaves and droughts, flooding from sea-level rises and extreme rainfall and severe crop failures. Climate impacts are already being experienced by communities across the U.K, with floods over the last year damaging over 1000 properties. Local authorities should consider both climate mitigation and adaptation measures to respond to escalating climate impacts. 


Research from the CBI shows that if the UK met air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO), the economy could benefit by £1.6 billion annually by reducing premature deaths, sickness absence and lower productivity as a result of air pollution. 

Additionally, research has shown that investment in climate action at the local level could create over 800,000 green jobs across the UK by 2030, increasing to 1.38 million jobs by 2050. On average 12.7 jobs are created for every £1 million of investment in sustainable transport infrastructure – over twelve times the average number of jobs created by investing the same amount in road building projects.  

Local authority action to encourage usage of public and active transport also reduces congestion, which has significant economic benefits. A bus carrying 48 passengers at 30mph requires 35m of road to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front, whereas the same passengers in single-occupancy cars require 1.4km of road. Contrastingly, expanding roads to ease congestion has been shown to fail by inducing demand – increasing the net distance driven by car. Reallocating local authority spending from road expansion to public and active transport improvements reduces the need for more road space, improves air quality and reduces emissions.  


Whilst the rational case can be made, public policy often collides with the bracing cold shower of human emotion. Overcoming our instinctive personal attachment to our cars and changing our ingrained behaviours, will require the boldest of policy, smart delivery and a robust understanding of human behaviour. A ‘build it and they will come’ mentality, has had limited effects and not borne out by the evidence. 

Members of UK100, a network of local government leaders committed to improving air quality and reaching Net Zero by 2045 or earlier, are taking ambitious action. Camden Council has adopted WHO standards on air quality and designed a Clean Air Action Plan to meet these targets through holding discussions with residents, public institutions and local businesses. The council’s Clean Air for Camden Campaign provides resources for residents on what they can do to improve air quality around their homes, workplaces and schools. 


York City Council recently introduced a Clean Air Zone, leading all diesel and petrol buses travelling within the city centre to be replaced by electric or low-emission models, made possible through applying for grants from the DfT and DEFRA. The introduction of an Ultra Low Emission Zone in London has reduced roadside nitrogen dioxide pollution by a third and cut carbon emissions through driving a shift to active and public transport. Oxford City Council is working with Oxfordshire County Council to implement a Zero Emission Zone on a number of its streets.  


Local leaders have a key role in enabling local residents and businesses to make low-carbon decisions. Bath and NE Somerset Council’s Energy Service provides residents with expert advice on heating, insulation and renewable energy, offering people the trusted information needed to make low-carbon choices. Bristol City Council has launched City Leap – a public-private partnership offer to deliver low-carbon energy infrastructure across the city. Portsmouth City Council’s Switched On service provides their residents with a number of ways to save energy, money and carbon. 


The UK100 network offers members the opportunity to share best practice with other local authorities on climate and clean air policies and to have a collective voice to express shared challenges and proposals to the UK government. To find out more or to join the network, email or visit the UK100 website. 




Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top