Why does the UK need a net zero carbon strategy?

In 2019 the UK Government made a commitment to achieve ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by the year 2050. This means that the amount of carbon dioxide that is generated by the country must be equivalent to what can be removed by natural cycles such as photosynthesis and ocean absorption.

It is vital for the UK to limit its carbon emissions because an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the planet to overheat. When global temperatures increase there is a much greater likelihood of natural disasters such as flooding, wildfires, drought, and sea-level rise, all of which pose an existential threat to life.

The challenge we face is that almost every action in our modern society produces carbon emissions. Our transportation systems, our heat and power networks, our manufacturing plants, and our food production methods all contribute to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and accelerate climate change.

If the UK is to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions and avoid the worst-case scenarios of climate breakdown then villages, towns, and cities across the country must become carbon neutral as soon as is realistically possible.

The challenge is great and there is much to consider, from powering buildings and vehicles with renewable energy to insulating homes and establishing a circular economy.

We cannot expect the Government to come up with all the solutions, and they will need a lot of help from local authorities who have a detailed understanding of the concerns of local people or the character of the local area.

This presents a big opportunity for town and parish councils to play a vital role in developing a decarbonisation strategy for their area. We know there is a strong desire amongst councils to lead on this. The challenge will be finding the relevant skills and experience to deliver on these net zero goals. 

aerial photograph of a town in sussex
To deliver a comprehensive net zero carbon strategy city and parish councils must implement measures to decarbonise every aspect of the community, including buildings, transport, and energy. Photo: Gabriel Mihalcea, Unsplash

Why net zero carbon presents a challenge for local authorities

There has been an inspired reaction to the UK’s net zero carbon commitments from councils around the country, with 75% of District, County, Single-Tier Councils and Combined Authorities having declared a climate emergency.

While the urgency of this response is admirable, the reality is that very few local authorities have the resources available to deliver on their net zero carbon goals.

Since the introduction of austerity measures in the 2010s most councils across the country are overwhelmed with the demands of health and social care. 

With their focus firmly on the existing pressures of meeting increasing public demand with ever dwindling resources, it is simply not feasible for local authorities to design and implement a comprehensive decarbonisation strategy without support from external actors. 

The need for a holistic decarbonisation strategy

Local authorities have influence over every part of life in a community and a carbon reduction strategy must be embedded into all aspects of the local authority’s work.

This is a formidable undertaking given the resource and timeframes available.

To achieve this, a holistic long-term strategy must be implemented which encompasses construction and planning, budget allocation, low-emission vehicle zoning, EV charging, recycling, and so on, ensuring that regional decarbonisation efforts are complimentary to the national net zero agenda.

A good starting point for any town council who want to better understand their existing carbon footprint is to utilise the online carbon calculator developed by the Centre For Sustainable Energy: https://impact-tool.org.uk/

To achieve net zero carbon emissions local authorities will need to evaluate the potential for renewable energy generation and install new capacity wherever feasible. The photo above shows a 99kWp rooftop solar array installed at Brunswick Primary School by BHESCo in the summer of 2019.

Decarbonising a local authority’s property portfolio

A logical place for a local authority’s net zero strategy to begin is with the decarbonisation  of its entire property portfolio, comprising council housing, community centres, leisure centres, health clinics, and council administrative buildings. This presents a massive challenge in and of itself and requires a skillset beyond the means of many smaller parish administrations.

Implementing a strategy to improve the energy performance of council owned buildings will require an initial review of the properties in order to understand the existing energy performance and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Once all properties have been made as energy efficient as possible (through the introduction of insulation, LED lighting, heating controls, motion sensors, etc), then renewable energy generation can be considered. This could include rooftop solar panels for the generation of renewable electricity, or exchanging fossil fuel heating systems for a cleaner alternative such as air source or ground source heat pumps.

The opportunity for a partnership between community energy groups and local authorities

Clearly, designing and executing an effective decarbonisation strategy for an entire community is a mammoth undertaking.

This is why local authorities should seek to engage the support of established organisations who already have years of real-world experience in delivering energy projects on behalf the local community.

Some local authorities may look to the private sector to fill the skills gap they need to deliver their net zero strategy. However, we believe they would achieve significantly greater value were they to partner with their local community energy group.

There are nearly 500 community energy organisations operating in the UK who have collectively installed 331 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, enough to power 174,000 households.

Community energy groups offer exceptional value for money for local authorities, who have an obligation on behalf of taxpayers to be cautious and responsible with their budget. A 2018 study by Community Energy England demonstrated that a project delivered by a community energy organisation can achieve 12-13 times more social and community benefit than a commercial installation.

Furthermore, community energy groups can have access to research and data that may be difficult for an outside organisation to acquire. For example, the various feasibility studies that BHESCo have completed have equipped our project team with a deep understanding of the electricity network in Sussex, in addition to forging a close working relationship with the regional electricity Distribution Network Operator, UK Power Networks. 

Such localised knowledge and trusted business relationships can be difficult to quantify but undoubtedly offer tremendous value for any local authority who is looking for a partner to support their net zero plans.

Why community engagement is key to a successful net zero strategy

A 2020 ‘Committee on Climate Change Net Zero’ report stated “It will not be possible to get close to meeting a net-zero target without engaging with people… Some of the difficult decisions that will be required will only be possible if people are engaged in a societal effort to reach net-zero emissions and understand the choices and constraints”.

In essence, this means that the local community must be included in a local authority’s decarbonisation efforts or else they will fail.

Any community will be composed of a diverse mixture of stakeholders with differing concerns and priorities, and engaging different groups within a community can be a challenge.

Thankfully, community engagement is an area where community energy groups are known to excel, partly because they are composed of people living and working within a community, and partly because their organisational structure means they are collectively owned by the communities the serve.

For these reasons, trust and respect are embedded within the values of community energy, and will ensure that energy projects are always ‘done with’ and not ‘done to’ local residents. This may be one reason why community energy groups are proven to be 4-5 times better at engaging local people than some corporate equivalents.

An effective community engagement strategy will be crucial to the successful delivery of a net zero carbon plan. In the photo above, Kayla Ente, CEO of Brighton & Hove Energy Services Co-operative (BHESCo) facilitates a community decarbonisation consultation with residents of the Cuckmere Valley in East Sussex.

First steps in a local authority's journey to net-zero carbon

Before action can be taken to transform a community into a beacon of modern low-carbon living a clear and measurable strategy must first be created.

A key component of this will be the design of a Local Area Energy Plan (LAEP).

An LAEP acts as a roadmap for the decarbonisation of a region’s heat and power supply, taking into consideration such factors as cost and financial analysis, electricity network constraints, and stakeholder engagement.

To help local authorities with the first stage of LAEP creation BHESCo are running a series of workshops which have been designed to:

If you are part of a local authority which is seeking support with its decarbonisation strategy then BHESCo would love to partner with you. 

Please provide your contact details using the form below and a member of our team will get back to you as soon as possible:

Contact Form

If you are interested in working with BHESCo to revolutionise the way that your town or village uses heat and power then please provide your details in the form below and a member of our Projects Team will get back to you to discuss next steps.