With the arrival of a vaccine, the chance to see friends and relatives in person and a new government plan to tackle the climate emergency, I’m feeling a little seasonal cheer.
But we mustn’t lose focus. The financial cost of the pandemic will drag into a difficult new year, as we seek to adapt the way we live, and build our economy back better.
We need to tackle the climate crisis with no less urgency than the pandemic, harnessing the same creativity of our public servants, the same ingenuity of our scientists, and the same determination of our leaders – local and national.
That’s why I’m delighted that UK100 have corralled the major cities, towns and villages from Cornwall to Edinburgh to commit to going further and faster than central Government in winning a race to zero. In a major summit, local leaders representing a third of the country signed a new pledge that commits them to cut their own council emissions to net zero by 2030, and their community emissions by 2045, five years earlier than Whitehall.
More cynical readers might view political pledges as being as full of hot air as your great uncle after the brussels sprouts. But these pledges are for life, and campaigners like UK100 – and electors next May – will hold our leaders accountable.
Across Yorkshire, local leaders, businesses and NGOs are working together. I’m pleased to say that Mayor Dan Jarvis is leading the way, having ambitions to ensure South Yorkshire is net zero by 2040 at the latest, 10 years ahead of the Government’s target. UK100’s co-chair, Judith Blake is leading Leeds Council to go further and faster in their net zero ambitions.
At the same time, North Yorkshire is a founder member of UK100’s Countryside Climate Network. Under Carl Les, the council is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030. The largest county in the country faces unique challenges to go green, but has taken important steps in cutting emissions from street lights and becoming the first in Europe to capture carbon dioxide from wood-burning.
Our lives will be very different in 2045. A day when you wake up in a house heated not by a gas boiler, but a heat pump. Where the electricity for your morning tea and toast is generated by solar panels in a disused car park. Where the sound of birds on your bike journey reminds you that your asthma has cleared up since the pollution levels fell. Where you share recommendations with your friends not for the best plumbers, but the best retrofit co-ordinators and grey water recycling systems. Where key services and shops are all within 15 minutes, or delivered by zero emissions vans or e-cargo bikes.
This isn’t the wistful longing of naive tree huggers, this is a solution to an economic and societal catastrophe waiting to happen. If we don’t keep our planet below 1.5 degrees, we will face disastrous consequences, like the devastating floods Yorkshire has experienced in recent years. No one can watch families emptying their front rooms of water in places like Calder Valley and remain unmoved.
In a transformed landscape, we need new jobs and skills. An estimated 105,000 jobs would be generated or would be readily adaptable to more sustainable industries in Yorkshire, according to analysis we developed with the LSE and Siemens. That is as many people as were employed in the steel industry in 1980.
Whether in cities like Leeds, Bradford or Sheffield, or in the industrial heartlands of the Humber, there is a huge opportunity to unlock £100bn of sustainable investment in low carbon energy. With so many people facing unemployment as a result of the Covid economic crisis, this is an opportunity we can’t refuse.
We need to empower local leaders to embark on the kind of municipal revolution that transformed our cities over a century ago, giving local authorities strategic powers over energy, transport and business.
That might mean the ability to create new power plants and energy storage, subsidise low emissions travel, or to close a school street to traffic.
The world will gather in Glasgow next year to agree how to make this a reality globally. It’s a chance to firmly link improving our health with successful climate action. The World Health Organisation has made the case powerfully of transforming the commitments made at Paris on climate change into concrete health outcomes.
Demonstrating action on a local level means we can stop feeling powerless in the face of a global crisis. Addressing the climate crisis is not just about protecting our communities from the extremes of weather, but transforming our economy to give ourselves a chance to thrive. And harnessing the ingenuity of communities across the country is the route to cleaner, greener prosperity.
Polly Billington is the director of UK100, a network of 100 local leaders focused on tackling climate change.
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