As Scotland goes to the polls today we should remember the huge power that our councils have to deliver on climate and environment ambitions.
Our 32 councils control a huge range of things that shape our daily lives. How far you have to travel to work, for education, leisure or shopping are all driven by planning decisions. Whether you have a lovely cyclepath and safe walking routes is down to your council. Out-of-town retail parks or thriving town centres? Largely down to your council. A decent network of bus routes? Parks and green spaces, even protection for individual trees? Good recycling? An incinerator or something more sensible? All entirely or mostly in the hands of your local council.
This vital role for local democracy in delivering on the environment was recognised 30 years ago at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Rio Earth Summit. Out of this event came the big UN Conventions on climate change, protecting nature and forests. But there was also another international agreement called Agenda 21, which set out a plan of action for governments at local, regional and national levels.
It was said at the time that 60-70% of all the things that needed doing were in the hands of councils. Out of Agenda 21 came Local Agenda 21, a process to create local plans to deliver on climate and environment goals. There was a lot of enthusiasm, councils employed environment policy people (including me for a while) and many initiatives were begun under the Local Agenda 21 banner.
At its peak almost 6,500 councils in 116 countries were part of the process.
While Local Agenda 21 has long faded from the lexicon of sustainable development activity, its legacy lives on and local authorities, from huge US State governments to town and rural councils, are contributing a huge amount to making life better and greener.
Globally councils work together in the Under2 Coalition, aiming to reduce climate change emissions. There are 270 local governments involved, representing about 50% of the global economy and nearly two billion people. When Trump was trying to stop or delay action on climate change, many US states kept up the fight with support from Coalition members around the world.
In Munich the council has been behind 15 years of solar panel installations around the city. Copenhagen has become the byword for a super-cycle-friendly city. New York State is taking its $280bn pension funds out of fossil fuels. California has set tough air quality standards for vehicles. Barcelona is banning cars from huge blocks of dozens of streets across the city. Tallinn made all public transport free in 2013.
The Sustainable Scotland Network continues the traditional of Local Agenda 21 by bringing together the environment people from our councils, along with people from other public bodies. Among our 32 councils you can see good work on climate targets, low emission zones for air pollution, and cycling and walking. But we can also see recycling going backwards, support for more road building and out-of-town developments.
The 1,200 people we elect today will be running our councils for the next five years. Those will be a crucial five years for getting to grips with the climate and nature emergencies.
A version of this blog appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on the 5th May 2022