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when chartered accountants save the world

Addressing the climate emergency in the UK public sector

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 01 Oct 2021

public sector main

The UK has a lot of work to do and a dwindling amount of time in which to do it

Despite overwhelming scientific consensus that the climate crisis is already wreaking havoc, most discussion of the topic still focuses on cutting the emissions that lead to it rather than the question that’s now equally pressing: how should we respond to the crisis itself?

The work to help prepare us all for such a worrying array of extreme weather events caused by climate change – including floods, heatwaves, droughts and cyclones – is known as ‘adaptation’ and, according to a range of experts, is not given nearly the attention or money it deserves. A recent report from the UK’s Climate Change Committee, the statutory body set up in 2008 to report on the climate crisis and the government’s response to it, says: “Adaptation remains the Cinderella of climate change, still sitting in rags by the stove, under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored.”

Adaptation is a different problem to that of understanding and reducing what we emit into the atmosphere. Given that all of us are susceptible to extreme weather events, it requires national and international coordination to ensure sufficient resources are provided but not duplicated or misspent, and it also requires local implementation, given that each locale is affected in different ways. Coastal areas require quite different protection to high-rise flats in a mega city, for example.

In the UK, those working in adaptation and with local government say the national government must help the many agencies, groups and councils involved with three things in particular: coordination of the response, sufficient and well-directed funding, and consistent and powerful communication.

A spokesperson from the Local Government Association (LGA) says: “Long-term sustainable funding and a national framework for addressing the climate emergency are essential. The framework should clearly outline responsibilities for the government nationally as well as locally, with a commitment to working with local public sector bodies.”

Coordination of the response

Kristen Guida, Manager of the London Climate Change Partnership, a group of organisations that are either interested in or responsible for London's climate resilience, agrees with the Climate Change Committee’s assessment of adaptation. “I think it is the Cinderella,” she says. The first step to changing that is national coordination, meaning that “central government needs to step up and actually require” organisations to take adaptation seriously.

“We need a strategically coherent and ambitious national adaptation programme. It needs resources attached to it.

“The fact that you've got climate change being dealt with by different government departments isn't particularly helpful, but that's not necessarily the be all and end all. You need someone coordinating the activities,” she says, such as “a team within DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] or the Cabinet Office or BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] that is actually looking across these different areas, because climate change adaptation should actually link to climate change mitigation.”

The LGA agrees with Guida’s assessment, saying: “Investment in adaptation can have far-reaching co-benefits that can be harnessed by the whole of the public and private sectors, if supported and mobilised by government in the right way. Benefits could be realised across not just the environment but health and the NHS, housing and inequality, employment, business and industry, infrastructure and security.”

Funding adaptation

When asked what’s stopping UK local government from getting to grips with adaptation, Alison Ring OBE, FCA, Director, Public Sector at ICAEW is unequivocal. “I don't think it has any resources. It's had austerity for 10 years, and it's then had to cope with the pandemic.

“A lot of the local authorities have declared climate emergencies, and that might be in terms of flooding or something similar, that is obviously relevant locally. But I think they're not equipped with either the capacity or the capability to actually then respond to that climate emergency they've declared.”

In particular, she explains, local authorities haven’t even got the resources to ensure they secure any funding that may be available. “Say, for example, there were grants for adapting your house, to make it heat resistant. Whose responsibility is it for getting those grants out locally? Is it the local authority?”

It is very unclear, she says.

Ring spoke to one council that created a job role dedicated to understanding and claiming all the different grants available. Primarily those grants were for sustainability issues, but then, she says: “It could be for other things, because there are all these different pots – levelling up, modernising high streets, etc. None of the money is given out automatically. Each council has to apply for individual grants.” That can cause big issues, because then the councils with money to spend on applying for these grants will then secure the money to do the work, but for those who haven’t got the funds or time to apply, they will lose out, and that can become a vicious circle.

Communication

As with any type of risk management, top-down funding and advice can only go so far. It’s crucial that all those involved in making day-to-day decisions about a countless number of issues, from approving planning permissions to education policy, understand why adaptation is so important and how to take it into account. 

Guida says that, so far, many people working in climate roles don’t appreciate the importance of communication when it comes to adaptation, and that the Climate Change Committee has been calling for “somebody to take responsibility for communicating this risk to people. They’ve been saying that in their reports for a very long time. And everyone keeps ignoring the advice.”

She adds that, because adaptation work is so locally specific, “necessarily you can only take people so far … because every situation will be different.

“You have to talk to people about good methods of understanding the risks [they face]. You can bring people good frameworks for working out, for example, what the potential costs are of extreme weather events. You can build capacity in those ways and help carry people to that place where they can start to work out what the solutions are for themselves.”

She also says that if she had to prioritise where to place limited communication funds – on targeting the general public or those in decision making roles (in business or non-commercial organisations) – she would choose decision makers, especially those in executive teams. 

“If I had to pick one I'd go for executive teams. And this is why we have worked with accountants for many years, because the financial mechanisms within the organisation need to get this, you know, and if they get it, then they can actually say, 'Alright, this is actually affecting the bottom line. This is affecting our ability to continue to deliver whatever it is we're supposed to be doing.’”

It’s about time all of us understood what we need to do to adapt to a new climate, not least of all chartered accountants.