Changemakers for the future

Polly Billington, UK100

“To achieve net zero, we must unleash the potential of local government”

The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Polly Billington, Chief Executive of UK100.

“I’ve been involved in environmental issues since the late 1980s, when I first became politically active. But my real Damascene moment was when I was made the special advisor to the newly established Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2008—a fantastic job. It was the first time that climate change was literally in the name of a department.

Also around that time, Lord Stern’s report on the economics of climate change was published. Until then, there was this idea that you have to balance the environment with economic and social justice. One was always at the expense of the other. For people from my political tradition, coal was central to the prosperity of the country and individual communities. And when coal mining was taken away, all those communities collapsed.

Lord Stern demonstrated that environmental damage was part of the economic sum—and that the costs of not doing anything about it would be borne by the poorest. It changed the conversation in British politics. We went from protesting to keep mines open in the early 1980s to the idea that we needed to stop using coal in the late 2000s.

Reasons for optimism

For me, the 2009 Climate Change Summit (COP) in Copenhagen, was another important moment. People flinch when I talk about Copenhagen because it was seen as a disaster. The last day was grim. The whole thing collapsed—it was a really pessimistic moment.

But the roots of the success in Paris in 2015 were in the disaster of Copenhagen. The environmental and climate diplomacy between 2009 and 2015 was important because it got us back on track. That’s why we need to remain optimistic. Human beings are good at learning lessons if they’re given an opportunity to apply them.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned is that the climate crisis must transcend party political bounds. Politicians and activists of all stripes are and need to work together. There is consensus that we must all do what we can to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis. There is also agreement that we need to do climate action with and not to communities. We must avoid exacerbating existing unfairness in society.

Local climate action plans

UK100 is a network of local government leaders in the UK, who have committed to ambitious action on climate, clean energy and clean air. When we started out in 2016, people didn’t understand why it was important that local government was part of the climate solution.

Our Power Shift report is a comprehensive analysis of all the powers and competencies that local authorities do have in the UK that can be used to act on climate. Local government officials can use this report when leaders say: “I want a local climate action plan”.

I’m proud that our research is cited in the UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy launched at the end of 2021. It’s the first time we’ve seen a full recognition by national government of the role of local government in climate action. But there’s a lot further to go because this has yet to be translated into effective policy and changes in the law.

Changing the rules

If I had 10 minutes to speak at the 27th UN Climate Change Conference, I would say it’s no longer enough just to acknowledge the vital role of local government. We now need national governments to allocate powers and resources to local government so it can fulfil its potential to enable the transition to net zero.

When I first went to Bangladesh, I saw the water rising around people’s homes. It wasn’t happening somewhere abstract. If we want to reduce the chances of the water rising around people’s homes—not only in Bangladesh, but also in Leeds, Cumbria and London in the UK—we need to make sure our homes use less energy, use it more efficiently, and use renewable energy.

There are so many local leaders who can help collectively achieve these changes. But national governments have to unleash that potential by changing the rules. Local governments need to be key players in designing the social and economic models we’ll have in 10 years’ time.

Increasing energy efficiency

Now we know we can only achieve social and economic justice if we factor in the importance of the environment. We’re much more likely to achieve it if we’re talking with the custodians of the community. They’re the ones who’ll say: “People need to be able to have green space around here— we can’t just build homes. People need jobs. What kind of jobs are they going to be?”

I also hope the UK government seizes the reality of the energy crisis and turns it into a driver of the shift we need, not only to renewable energy, but to greater energy efficiency. We have a lot of old housing stock in the UK, and we’re badly served with draughty, leaky homes. We love our homes, but we need to be able to heat them efficiently.

And no one has done enough fundamental reform of the UK energy market to shift us away from a dependency on volatile gas prices and increase our energy efficiency. Now’s the moment to do it.

Hopes for the future

Politics is all about negotiation. And yet, politicians don’t always get that science can’t be negotiated with. The challenge we’ve got is in making the unstoppable force of science meet the immovable object of the laws of politics.

My hope is that we can mainstream political change to meet the reality of the science. At the same time, it must benefit people who are anxious about things like economic security, social solidarity and individual opportunity. We need to be able to say: “We can bring those things to you through really good climate action.” So, how do we harness the political will and ambition to do this? I believe we can do it if we focus on the things that matter to most people: how you get to and from work, what kind of work you do, whether your kids are safe, how you heat and cool your homes, keeping the lights on and breathing easily. Those issues are the meat and drink of people who get involved in politics. We need to make sure people have those things without relying on fossil fuels. It’s not easy. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Polly Billington is the Chief Executive Officer of UK100. She founded UK100 in 2016 and is the face of the organisation. She is a campaigning and communications specialist with extensive experience in media, government and politics.
The IKEA Foundation is supporting UK100 because it will help the UK to achieve a rapid and just transition to a net-zero economy that is good for both people and planet.