BLOG: Carol Dunbar outlines how our Local Authority Programme is tackling environmental concerns

BLOG: Carol Dunbar outlines how our Local Authority Programme is tackling environmental concerns

Wed 13 Jan 2021 by Carol Dunbar

In November this year the world’s leaders will gather in Glasgow for a summit on climate change, where more robust action is expected to be agreed to battle global warming.

With a majority of scientists agreed that warming is down to human activity a renewed effort at governmental level is to be welcomed but work on the ground in Ireland has been ongoing for some time and Co-operation Ireland has been playing its part.

Through our Local Authority Programme (LAP), we have been facilitating a cross border response to climate change challenges after the representatives on the programme, who all work for local and city councils across the island, identified it as a growing challenge.

The LAP is a partnership of representatives from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), Northern Ireland and the County and City Management Association (CCMA), Republic of Ireland.  

The Forum encourages practical co-operation between local authorities on a range of issues, which affect the whole island, and it has successfully delivered cross-border projects on waste management, community planning, shared services and leadership amongst others.

The Forum recognised that Climate Change is a defining issue of our time and one which permeates every area of work within local authorities. With this in mind the Forum agreed to integrate this area of work into its work programme for 2020 and beyond.  

Whilst it is clear that climate/environment issues do not recognise national/jurisdictional boundaries, and that our planet is a valuable and shared resource for all communities and citizens on the island, north and south, there are certainly differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in terms of research, targets, predictions, progress, actions etc and therefore a need to look at the potential for harmonisation of policy and practice,  and collaborative actions at local government level.

Through our virtual series – From Global to Local – we kicked off an all-island conversation on the shared challenges of climate change at all levels (global, national and local) and explored specifically how local government can best respond to, and mitigate against, these challenges. 

The series involved a wide range of distinguished and inspirational speakers, each of whom spoke passionately and engaged energetically on the core themes of the series. 

Our keynote speaker was Former President of Ireland, Mrs Mary Robinson, who spoke to us about the imperative of addressing the global challenge through immediate action in our own local communities and invited local authorities to simply act now in whatever way is possible. 

Mary Robinson was supported during the first event by Artur Runge-Metzger from DG CLIMA at the EU Commission and by Professor John Barry from Queen’s University, both of whom further contextualised at a global level, the position for Ireland, both north and south.

During event number two central government representatives were invited to join the conversation and to inform us on national progress on reaching established targets and ambitions for policy development into the future, in particular on recovery post Covid. 

We were joined by Minister Edwin Poots, MLA, Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Northern Ireland and also by Mark Griffin, Secretary General at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

The final event brought a focus specifically onto local authorities and examined closely what it all means for local authorities across the island and why should/does it matter to them. 

Ciaran Hayes, Chief Executive of Sligo County Council and ROI local authority co-ordinator on climate and Cathy Burns, Climate Programme Manager at Derry City & Strabane District Council spoke to us about the work that is currently ongoing across the local authority sector on climate adaptation and mitigation.

The series was facilitated by Dr. Tara Shine, a global expert in climate change who spent 20 years as an international climate change negotiator and adviser to governments and world leaders on environmental policy.

Through a number of detailed presentations and informed dialogue/discussion, the series facilitated learning on a number of levels as follows;

  • Understanding the landscape in terms of both current and emerging climate change policy across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with specific regard to policy frameworks and targets set at both global and EU level.
  • Highlighting the key role local authorities are currently playing in this area and the contribution that is already being made by local authorities across both jurisdictions.
  • Exploring how local authorities across the island can work together in a practical manner to mitigate against the effects of climate change and play a valuable leadership role in improving the future of their communities.

My personal learning through involvement in this project has been enormous – from the detail of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the GAP Report to the EU 2050 Long Term Strategy and the 2030 Climate & Energy Framework – all terminology that I was familiar with through hearing news reports etc but never actually understanding fully what they meant and their impacts for Ireland and Northern Ireland.

However, the most valuable thing that I learned from the series is that what is needed now as a matter of urgency is more action at country and local level. One clear message shone through during all three events in the series and that was ‘ACT NOW’ to make a difference in whatever way and at whatever level you can. This message came from every speaker involved in our events. 

For me this means ACT NOW and ACT DIFFERENTLY.  And for local authorities specifically there is an imperative to ‘climate-proof’ every aspect of their work, at all levels, in order to change practices and policies and to ultimately help build a more sustainable future for all of communities/citizens whilst protecting our most valuable resource and avoiding exacerbation of an already existing crisis. 

We are at the start of a journey that must continue in order to be in a position to make any kind of practical difference. What was achieved through the delivery of the series was the opening up of a joint dialogue and discussion on this important shared issue, and the examination of where things stand currently across the island both north and south. 

What is important now is to keep that conversation going and to explore further how local government as a sector can act differently and better, and hopefully act together on an all-island basis. 

Through the series we have made some very valuable connections both locally, cross-border and internationally and we have facilitated a certain level of learning and relationship building. To make a real difference we need to maintain momentum in this area of our work and build on the solid foundation the virtual series has provided for us.