You may think that our councils have a limited impact on our lives in comparison to national government, but the reach and scope of local authorities is significant, and that even includes global issues like tackling climate change.
The role councils play, and will continue to play, in Scotland’s ability to achieve our climate ambitions and reducing our emissions is huge. From low-emission zones to running local insulation schemes and building cycle lanes to how our rubbish is recycled, the choices made at a local level, in towns, cities, coastal and rural areas really do matter.
Just six months ago, world leaders convened at COP26 in Glasgow, and agreed to stick to the ambition of limiting damaging climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This target became a symbol of COP26, with school children, community groups and politicians coalescing around it – many understanding for the first time the true urgency required to halt the irreversible and deadly impacts of climate change.
That’s why it’s so important to remember, ahead of the council elections, that the responsibility for delivering this ambition from COP26 lies as much with our local representatives as it does with our governments in Westminster or Holyrood.
For the most part, it’s at this level that the meaningful change needed will happen – these decisions affect how our communities are able to respond to the climate challenge.
So, we will expect a lot from our newly elected councillors. They need to transform our communities, making them more sustainable and helping local people make the choices that will serve both our local areas and the planet.
No subject will test their mettle more than transport, which is the largest source of carbon emissions in Scotland, with two thirds coming from our roads.
This can lead to pollution ‘hot spots’ in major cities, resulting in legal limits for toxic chemicals such as nitrogen oxide regularly being exceeded. Addressing this head on isn’t just good for the climate, but for health too. By dealing with poor air quality and the associated health impacts, we’re also helping to improve lives and reduce the burden on the NHS.
Improvements to our public transport infrastructure will be required on a national scale and need to be implemented at pace. Edinburgh is a good example of how public transport can serve our communities and workforce – both in terms of affordability and reliability – while also significantly reducing the environmental impact of emissions by using low-carbon alternatives.
Indeed, bus use in the capital is the highest in Scotland, with low fares and a dense network no doubt helping. So, Edinburgh provides examples of working solutions that towns and cities across Scotland could also benefit from, while getting serious about tackling our current emissions levels too.
Change on the scale necessary can only be done in collaboration with government and, as such, the Scottish Government needs to be much clearer about how it will reduce congestion in our cities and achieve the laudable ambition of reversing ever-increasing car use – as the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) has highlighted, our local authorities require the financial resource necessary to make the significant improvements we all need.
How our road networks are maintained and developed will have a big impact on reducing our emissions. Councils are responsible for the maintenance of local routes and it’s in their gift to develop infrastructure for active travel – creating cycleways and well-lit pathways for walking, making journeys healthier and safer.
Bus services can also be improved – a vital source of low-carbon transport in rural areas. And by limiting access to our city and town centres to zero-emission vehicles, we can cut pollution, make urban areas more liveable, and encourage more journeys by foot, bike or public transport.
Another important area controlled by local authorities is planning. Councillors regularly decide what types of buildings, houses and amenities are developed in our neighbourhoods, and this must all be considered in the context of the climate and nature emergency.
These decisions will be vital in a just and fair transition to low-carbon living for all. Initiatives such as ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ – where everything that a person needs, including shopping, schools and green space, can all be easily reached from home – should be at the forefront of future urban planning decisions.
In rural areas, developments should be directed away from carbon-rich areas such as our important peatlands, which help us store carbon, filter our drinking water and provide a home to unique and iconic species.
Councillors also decide on renewable energy developments, and support for new projects such as wind turbines or district heating networks is vital if we are to end our dependency on fossil fuels for power and heating.
Indeed, local authorities will play a key role in zoning and helping build low-carbon heat networks that are essential to decarbonise tenements and high-density city centres. Many already operate well-regarded insulation schemes for people living in fuel poverty, helping provide low-carbon and lower cost heat.
The link between local action and global impact has never been stronger. In the face of big global problems like climate change, people want to know what they can do in their own lives and in their own communities to help make a difference for people, climate and nature.
Scotland needs climate heroes at every level of government, and these elections are a chance to make that happen.
Fabrice Leveque is climate change policy manager at WWF Scotland