How can England's metro mayors deliver ambitious climate action?

ICE has published an insight paper exploring how subnational leaders in England could help the UK reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Metro mayors of English combined authorities, such as Greater Manchester, are ideally placed to deliver high-impact climate action. Image credit: Shutterstock
Metro mayors of English combined authorities, such as Greater Manchester, are ideally placed to deliver high-impact climate action. Image credit: Shutterstock
  • Updated: 02 September, 2021
  • Author: David McNaught, ICE Policy Manager

With the UK government having set an ambitious, legally-binding target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, attention is now focused on the actions needed to achieve it.

Many of these actions will need to happen at local level, giving subnational leaders a crucial role in delivering net-zero.

To fulfil this role however, subnational leaders will need to develop the right strategies and have access to the powers, resources and funding required to act.

ICE’s Insights Paper explores international best practice and suggests principles for subnational climate action that is ambitious, place-based and fair – delivering the cuts needed to reach net-zero, as well as a just transition that brings wider socio-economic benefits for local communities.

Unlocking subnational climate action

Subnational governance in England has been transformed over the last decade with the creation of 10 combined authorities, nine of which (Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, North of Tyne, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, West of England, and West Yorkshire) are led by directly-elected metro mayors.

However, the devolution agenda has slowed and there is concern that this could undermine the UK’s ability to achieve net-zero and other key national objectives such as levelling-up.

Metro mayors’ local knowledge, influence and proximity to their constituents and communities make them ideally placed to lead the development and delivery of high-impact subnational climate action.

However, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has argued that while over half the emissions cuts needed rely on decisions made at local level and businesses, local authorities themselves currently have influence over only around a third of emissions in their areas.

In infrastructure terms, metro mayors have limited powers over several sectors that require urgent change, including high-emitting, difficult-to-decarbonise sectors such as transportation and buildings.

The CCC has argued that net zero cannot be achieved by 2050 without enabling more action at subnational level. The Sixth Carbon Budget calls for a collaborative approach between all levels of government with additional direction, resources and powers for subnational leaders.

The National Infrastructure Commission has also recommended more powers be devolved to metro mayors to deliver key national objectives. However, the government did not fully endorse this in its response to the last National Infrastructure Assessment and devolution is absent from the National Infrastructure Strategy.

A global challenge

Empowering regional and local leaders to undertake effective climate mitigation and adaptation is not only a challenge in England.

Globally, countries are working to align national and subnational climate action, while the United Nations has urged governments to mainstream their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) into subnational policies and budgets.

A growing number of principles and frameworks are providing guidance for subnational leaders. These include the UN Habitat Guiding Principles for City Climate Action as well as broader frameworks such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Subnational leaders are also exploring innovative concepts such as ‘15-minute cities’ and circular economics to plan and deliver emissions cuts, rethink urban infrastructure and spaces, and make local communities more liveable.

ICE’s Insights Paper highlights examples including Oslo’s annual climate budgets and electric vehicle infrastructure; New York City’s Buildings Mandate to cut emissions from the city’s largest buildings; and Paris’s ambition to boost active travel through its expanding cycle network.

Looking ahead

The government is set to publish its overarching net-zero strategy this autumn, prior to the UK hosting the COP26 Conference in November. The Treasury is also expected to publish its Net-Zero Spending Review later this year.

These will need to provide a framework for enabling and funding subnational climate action as part of the broader national plan for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Over the next 12 months, ICE will be undertaking a series of roundtable discussions with key stakeholders across England’s regions to examine the issues in the paper and discuss how combined authorities can drive climate action through infrastructure and what additional resources they need. Read the full insights paper.

For more information about the role of infrastructure in achieving net-zero, read ICE’s 2020 State of the Nation report.

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