Duncan Price 15 January 2020

Tackling the climate emergency

Over the past year, we’ve seen climate emergencies being declared by different local authorities, sectors, and industries, outlining their plans to meet the Government’s national target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Some have even taken the brave and ambitious step of making this timeframe even smaller.

This is a step in the right direction, but urgent action is needed to curb climate change and mitigate the dangerous impacts of air pollution and our carbon footprint. The research findings around taking climate action speaks for itself and can’t be ignored.

For example, our research with C40 Cities – a network of the world’s greatest cities to take bold climate action – has shown that if all C40 cities achieved clean transport, buildings and industry, underpinned by a decarbonised grid, fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 (one of the most harmful pollutants to human health) in these cities would drop by 49%, on average, while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 87%, on average. The air quality improvement would result in massive health benefits for citizens and potentially avert a total of 223,000 premature deaths per year across all C40 cities. This report shows cities how they can use the compelling evidence to connect the dots between climate, air quality and health and make a much stronger case for action.

While these figures have been taken from across the world, it clearly demonstrates the significant air quality, health and economic benefits of taking action. Other co-benefits of climate action in cities include job creation, lower energy bills and energy poverty alleviation.

The key to successfully tackling plans laid out in climate emergency declarations is to test the possible strategies to see what’s feasible, determine the real-life practicalities, and explore the impact they could have in order to help the UK become carbon neutral – and support the ‘top-down’ approach at a national level.

We’re supporting a number of local authorities in developing their own response to the climate emergency with scenario planning, stakeholder workshops and support with citizens assemblies as a way to build bottom-up buy-in to the actions required to meet ambitious targets. It’s an exercise we’ve successfully been involved with in Cornwall, alongside The Eden Project and Cornwall Council – one of the first local authorities to declare a climate emergency.

We’ve held a series of workshops, most recently in September, to develop the county’s energy plans and debate the various methods available to businesses and local people to play their part to achieve net zero carbon by 2030, an ambitious target set by Cornwall Council earlier this year. During the most recent event in September, organisations demonstrated a clear commitment to help Cornwall meet this target – 20 years earlier than the goal set by central Government – and different approaches were discussed with organisations, including Cornwall Council, Vattenfall, Centrica, St Austell Brewery and Extinction Rebellion.

Participants discussed the importance of implementing existing technologies to generate energy needs locally, with Cornwall’s huge natural resources making it ideally placed to draw on renewable sources such as offshore wind and geothermal energy. We also explored the need to encourage people to adopt low-carbon lifestyles, with the panel agreeing the importance of implementing solutions which can be led by individuals, not just organisations.

To test policies in areas including transport, retrofit and governance, we held a collaborative strategy game. This exercise used role-play to interrogate the realities of effective community engagement, which is absolutely crucial in reducing greenhouse gas emissions on time. In fact, this exercise clearly demonstrated that in order to scale up and accelerate climate, having a broad range of stakeholders on board is the key to effective action. Effort in isolation will not get us where we need to be.

Cornwall was the perfect place to test these scenarios, as I believe the county is one of the leading lights in this area, thanks to its existing renewable energy network and environmental expertise. It’s going to be a huge challenge to reach Cornwall’s 2030 target, so we all need to act now and work together to make our efforts work first time.

At this event, we brought impetus and fresh ideas, our technical thinking, our evidence base and huge enthusiasm to try something new. At the end of the day, this is a climate emergency. We’ve got to do things differently and I very much hope that this approach is something that we can replicate in other local authorities, regions and cities across the UK – and indeed the world.

We know from our research for C40 Cities that clean transport, buildings and industry can deliver significant air quality, health and economic benefits. We need the government to support a series of ‘no regrets’ actions, including adopting ambitious energy efficiency targets for new and existing buildings and, working together with the UK construction and property industry, adopt the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC)’s framework for net zero carbon buildings.

But what about local authorities?

They need one strategy, one plan supported by a wide range of stakeholders so they can move beyond planning to implementation; the challenge is now to mobilize and deliver what is needed through systematic action to deliver the benefits.

Many local authorities have declared their climate emergency targets to be reached by 2030 – that’s just 10 years to make a difference. The clock is ticking, so everyone needs to work together to make sure we get it right first time. We all need to take responsibility, step up and take action.

Duncan Price is director of sustainability at global engineering consultancy BuroHappold

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