For local authorities committed to climate action, declaring a climate emergency can be a gruelling task. But an even tougher question follows: what happens next?
For Cornwall Council, as for many others, the answer began with an action plan.
Our target was set as a carbon neutral Cornwall by 2030, which required comprehensive data on our starting point and the key emitting sectors on which to focus our work.
But as vital as the data is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. There are many ways we could work towards carbon neutrality, some quicker than others.
As a local authority our target of zero net emissions is only a mechanism by which we can, in the face of the potential catastrophic impacts of the climate emergency, achieve our primary vision of a just, thriving and resilient Cornwall for one and all.
We cannot afford to let climate change accelerate inequality, whether through housing, education, access to jobs, health, mobility or any other measure.
Alongside our carbon targets, we need a mechanism to frame the bigger picture – one that helps us navigate the uncertainties and complexities of the climate crisis, and respond with ambitious and imaginative changes that create a brighter future.
Our solution, or at least the first part of it, has been to implement the groundbreaking work of Kate Raworth and her ‘doughnut economics’ model. The principle is simple: the ways we use or extract resources from the planet can threaten the boundaries of our planet, and if we do not enable everyone in society to thrive then we risk not meeting the social boundaries.
The solution is to find the sweet spot between these two boundaries, where both society and the planet can thrive and regenerate each other. This is visualised as a green ring, a doughnut, between both extremes, and is the space our policies and actions must aim to land in.
In practice, this model been applied to the Cornwall Council decision-making wheel. This tool takes the principles of doughnut economics, the social and planetary boundaries, and gives decision makers a perspective on how each will be affected by the decision at hand.
Officers work through a series of questions applied to each section, from water health to wealth inequality, and assign a score to represent the potential impact from a long-term negative impact to lasting positive effects.
When the scores are translated into a simple colour scheme, the decision wheel offers a snapshot of a complex interconnected system that is easier to digest and engage with for decision makers.
Since September 2019, every decision which has been through Cabinet has used the decision wheel to present the potential impacts across the social and planetary boundaries. This gives decision-makers a broader perspective, and helps them consider the inter-connectedness of people and place in Cornwall, where the environment is inextricably linked to the lives of residents through tourism, farming, energy generation and our sense of collective identity. The broad perspective also articulates that there are no perfect decisions in a complex system. Every action will have negative consequences, the important thing is to recognise them and build in mitigation actions.
The tool can also highlight evidence gaps, areas where we don’t have the data to inform the decision. Without the decision wheel, these gaps are likely to remain invisible, but visualising them deepens our understanding of the work we still have to do to improve the decisions we make. This is an iterative process, which will be continually improved over time.
The second version currently under development will automatically generate scores for each area based on input into an online app. It will be combined with the council’s existing Comprehensive Impact Assessment tool for new projects and policies to create a single project planning and impact assessment tool. It will also help generate a more quantitative picture of our impacts as a council through aggregating the scores it generates and will feed directly into the council’s carbon inventory to give an annual account of the decisions we are taking as well as the progress against our own carbon reduction targets.
Progress is the crucial ingredient. While carbon neutrality can be measured, our response to the climate emergency is not an exact science. As we make progress towards our 2030 target, we must also progress our ability to understand and respond to complexity, and ensure the decisions we make acknowledge and embrace uncertainty. This is how we move from declaring a climate emergency to responding to a climate emergency, and most importantly, how we create a Cornwall in which one and all can thrive.
This piece first appeared at The MJ.
Cornwall Council shared more insights at a meeting of Ashden’s city-region network – an initiative helping city-regions take on the climate emergency.