Meeting the zero-carbon challenge - five predictions for local authorities in the coming decade

By Karl Limbert, Integrated Solutions Director at ENGIE UK Places & Communities 


More than half of all UK local authorities (1) have now declared a climate emergency, and the majority of those - 69% - have set a target date of achieving net zero for their area by 2030. However, with just ten years (2) to go to achieve that, what challenges will local authorities face along the way and how can these issues be met head on?

With this in mind, we imagine what council life will be like throughout the 2020’s, and how local authorities can rise to meet the zero-carbon challenge.

The kids are all right

Greta Thunberg and the class of 2019 won’t just fade away: sustainability issues – global warming, extreme weather events, air pollution, soil despoliation, loss of biodiversity, and forced migration - will all go on to dominate the political and media landscape of the 2020s.

As we enter the new decade, 100% of scientists (3) now agree that climate change is the product of human actions and that the window for correcting this is vanishing every year. By the middle of the 2020s there will be widespread consensus that what we’ve been calling climate change is really just a polite euphemism for an existential threat that requires much more urgent action. The requirement for effective, place-based local leadership (4) to deliver rapid change across multiple agendas, including health, planning, housing, transport, development and economic growth will redefine the role of local government in the 2020’s.

Meet your new senior colleague

By 2030 local authorities will be legally responsible for achieving net zero within their area. To progress this, all councils will be required to appoint a statutory Chief Sustainability Officer who will be responsible for working with businesses, other public sector partners and local communities to set - and deliver - local, science-based, sustainability programmes.

Some of these programmes will feel familiar to officers of the late 2010’s, such as deploying infrastructure for electric vehicles, or developing new local low carbon heat and power networks; they’ll just be happening on a much larger scale. On the other hand, some will feel entirely new, like managing local emissions trading regimes,(5) or using circular economics models to deliver critical social infrastructure (6).

The future is already here –  it’s just not very evenly distributed

So said the science fiction writer William Gibson in the early 90s. By 2025, a lot of the changes needed to get us to net zero will already be well underway.

IoT technologies will be highly embedded across all parts of the built environment - from homes to workplaces - enabling us to be much smarter and more efficient (7) about how we use and manage energy. Lifestyle changes, such as the adoption of plant based diets, the reduction of single use plastics, and a reluctance to use air travel, will all have become widely accepted societal norms. And, a combination of advances in battery technologies, the emergence of 5G networks, and the popularity of subscription-based payment models, will mean that the transport sector is completely disrupted. By 2025, the internal combustion engine will have poor resale values, air quality will be vastly improved, and no-one will bother driving (8) let alone owning cars anymore. (9) We’ll feel like the future has arrived, and that we’ve got it all cracked. Except we won’t have. Some sectors will still be highly resistant to change…

The sector that got stuck

The 2020’s will feel strangely familiar to local government in at least one key respect: we’ll still be talking about a housing crisis – it’s just that by then it’ll be much more complicated and significantly more acute. In addition to the need to develop at least 300,000 new homes per year,(10) and to address pressing social issues such as housing needs for an ageing population, social isolation and dementia,(11) we’ll also need to work out a way to decarbonise the houses we live in.

In 2019, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (12) reported that Britain would be unable to meet its net zero target without the near complete elimination of greenhouse gasses from the housing sector. There are two parts to this problem: the first is to make sure that the new houses we’re delivering are supporting a net zero future; the second is to find a way to retrofit the 25 million existing homes we currently live in to make sure they support a net zero future too.

As we start the new decade we have a few examples (13) that prove both can be done (14) – but we’ll need a huge effort from central government, local government, and the development, construction and financing communities to get us to where we need to be by the decade’s end.

The critical importance of number 17

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (15) (SDGs) provide the most comprehensive framework available for delivering a ‘just transition’ to a net zero future. As we enter the new decade it’s encouraging to see more and more organisations in both the public (16) and private sectors (17) incorporating the SDG’s into their model of corporate governance.

SDG 17 is concerned with developing new models of partnership (18) to strengthen our capacity and capability to deliver sustainable futures and will be critically important in the new decade. Local authorities will be at the forefront of this agenda, developing innovative new public private partnerships (19) to secure the massive inward investment needed to transform their local area and to deliver on their legally binding obligations to deliver net zero.


Decarbonising towns, cities and regions is a complex challenge, requiring strong, strategic leadership and the co-ordination of public, private and voluntary sector organisations across all parts of the economy. In a two-part report, ENGIE has drawn on its experience around to the world to set out its thoughts on how local authorities can lead and deliver the transition to net-zero across the UK, showing how the different aspects of the net zero agenda fit together at a local level and examples of the types of programmes and projects that need to be undertaken to lead the transition to net zero.