How do we govern climate action?: the case of Surrey – improvisatory and compensatory governance for Net Zero

Ian Christie and Erica Russell

13th November 2023

How should we govern the complex and urgent task of transition to a zero-carbon economy? Much work has been undertaken to understand and organise effective climate governance in big cities, with international networks such as C40 Cities continuing to develop and exchange best practice. But, of course, there is a world of local governance and policymaking beyond major urban centres. Many millions in the UK live in towns and countryside, and what happens there matters a great deal for climate action and the prospects for sustainable development.

In our new report, based on our findings from a three-year ESRC-funded research programme,  we explore this under-considered issue by focusing on the county in which the University is situated: Surrey. Why focus on our home county? One key reason is that it can be argued that if we can’t govern and invest effectively for sustainable development in a very affluent and highly developed place such as Surrey, we probably can’t do it anywhere. Most greenhouse gas emissions in consumption come from the most affluent households, and we need well-off places and citizens to make the most significant changes in lifestyles in support of an equitable transition to a decarbonised economy and a greener society.

The research reveals pioneering and highly motivated work across levels and sectors – but also huge frustration at the barriers to effective and joined-up local action and leadership on climate. The project generated clear messages for UK Government and the whole English system of local governance. A key recommendation is that we urgently need a new compact setting out the division of labour between national and local government and local partners concerning climate action. We call for a ‘climate constitution’ setting out clear roles, responsibilities, goals and incentives. And if necessary, Surrey’s local government and its partners should set up their own version of this through a county-wide deliberative process.

We found new forms of local governance emerging, which we have termed Improvisatory and Compensatory governance. In this approach, local actors organise as best they can in the absence of coherent policy and encouragement from national government. Many place-based approaches were being invented in Surrey and tested in this spirit of improvisation and compensation, aiming to make progress despite, rather than with, national policy.  This approach, and the lack of a coherent and consistent framework for multi-level action on climate in the UK, has given rise at a local level to governance that is “really wavy and sort of moving” , as one interviewee said. For some actors, this situation offers the potential for truly local interventions, allowing a more holistic place-based approach; but for many others there is a sense of wasted time and lack of direction.

Our new report  offers recommendations, based on our findings and the wider recent policy literature, for UK climate policy, the development of new governance models and also for climate action in Surrey.

An extended version of this commentary is available on the Place-Based Climate Action Network website.

For a more detailed insight into micro-level climate governance: The Remaking of Institutions for Local Climate Governance? Towards Understanding Climate Governance in a Multi-Level UK Local Government Area: A Micro-Local Case Study (Russell and Christie, 2021)


Ian Christie is an associate professor in CES and a fellow of the University of Surrey’s new Institute for Sustainability. Dr Erica Russell is a sustainable development consultant and a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability (CES).