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Target Zero: Right Mindset, Wrong Metric

Having declared a climate emergency, how should we go about measuring our progress in tackling this emergency, and how much time and effort should we spend in monitoring and evaluation? These are not trivial questions. Climate action is a societal conversation, not a government policy, and as such these measurements will make an important contribution to the wider debate.

The instinct of councils is to jump into carbon footprint analysis, either of the council’s own estate and operations, or of the wider local authority area. The target is net zero greenhouse gas emissions, so it is tempting to think about everything in terms of these emissions and to track all our efforts against this benchmark. Trapped in the business-as-usual mindset of how we do things typically, this detailed analysis may be a time-consuming mistake and a misguided use of resources.

Before councils take this “carbon first” approach to quantification and metrics, consider first the wicked problem we are addressing; our contributions rather than the overall outcome; and that building resilience is integral to taking climate action.


Climate change and the loss of biodiversity are wicked problems. Literally and technically. The technical term was coined in the context of a problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their attitudes and behaviour; where there is no single answer; and where the social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem, as is the case of climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Climate change plays its part in devastating the web of life. At the same time this web is fundamental to natural solutions for absorbing greenhouse gases, such as photosynthesis by green plants. We cannot reduce biodiversity loss without mitigating climate change, and we cannot mitigate climate change without reducing biodiversity loss.

Converting the impact of everything we must change into its equivalent greenhouse gas emissions misses the point (even if it were possible). By definition, solutions to wicked problems are multi-dimensional. However, the danger of over quantification is paralysis through analysis, and metrics madness that diverts resources away from the font line.

The measure of local climate action should be apparent by looking at a very small number of indicators, across more than a single carbon emissions metric.


For the benefit of those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with monitoring and evaluation jargon, it will help to differentiate two terms before explaining where we should focus.

“Attribution” is the idea that an impact is solely due to our intervention. If a local council implements an electric car charging infrastructure project, then the number of public charging points is “attributable” to that programme. The council made it happen, and there is no dispute otherwise. “Contribution” is the idea that our intervention is one of many factors that contributed to an impact. If new legislation is passed, for example the target requiring the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, it would not be the result of a single council. Lots of other factors are at play, including the actions of other councils, lobbyists, political incentives, public opinion, and so on. The change is not attributable to one council, but each council may “contribute” towards the change.

Identifying our contribution in complex settings, and recognising the contribution of others, is more realistic than searching for evidence of sole attribution. In assessing contribution, we still need to understand the extent to which we contributed, and the process through which this happened. However, the work required to measure the causal links that enable us to contribute towards the intended impact is very, very hard. The methodological detail, logic models and empiricism required is something best left to the gurus. These gurus sit elsewhere – typically outside the local authority team, in dedicated departments, academia and think thanks.

The measure of local climate action should focus on contributions to the intended outcome, measuring progress made on the ground in addressing a wicked problem.


“Net zero greenhouse gas emissions” is a fantastic target to focus our minds and the collective effort required. Those councils that have gone further with the target date of 2030 clearly demonstrate the urgency that our situation demands.

However, climate action based on a target of zero carbon needs to be joined up with our climate action on “building resilience”. It is too late to avoid some of the consequences of climate change, as we see from the damage and devastation to lives and property caused by extreme weather events – from flash floods and torrential rains to heat waves and extended droughts – that is simply becoming “the weather”. It is a law of nature that feedback loops will inevitably correct the anomalies we have created, even if we do not.

In the face of radical uncertainty, we face the challenge of being able to recover quickly from difficulties we cannot control or even anticipate. “Tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent” is not a proxy for building this resilience, which extends beyond our energy usage, efficiency gains and infrastructure design, to regenerating natural resources and social capital.

In measuring this aspect of climate action, it is worthwhile to consider how we are building regenerative capacity instead of merely how we build resilience. It’s a fundamental distinction, not semantics. Resilience is a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and the toughness to get back up again. Regeneration is active, implying working with natural resources and processes to maximise the capacity to recover more quickly.

The measure of local climate action should take into account “zero carbon” and “building resilience”, as both are needed for climate safety.

In summary, bringing together views on attribution at the contribution level with measurement of our regenerative capacity and an understanding (on a more descriptive, qualitative level) on how people’s attitudes are changing would help answer the question about what constitutes success in taking climate action, and hence what we should be measuring.


Copyright 2019 Ric Casale

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