A round up of climate change news from Bristol you may have missed this week.
Photo: XR, Colin Moody. City Hall, FlikrCC
This week Extinction Rebellion protests brought traffic to a standstill in Bristol and was subject of relentless media coverage, but less attention was paid to the wranglings on the climate emergency in City Hall.
As the first court cases of Extinction Rebellion arrested protesters got under way on Friday morning, the West of England Combined Authority (the regional government led by Tory mayor Tim Bowles) declared a climate emergency and pledged to put in place a climate action plan. The move is the latest in a week of discussion on the topic at a local and regional government level as well as in the streets and on social media.
Bristol City Council’s meeting on Tuesday was dominated by environmental issues as Extinction Rebellion undertook a second day of protest. The mayor delivered his ‘climate emergency response’, though he came under immediate fire for his continued support for Bristol Airport’s expansion plans.
These recent developments follow a motion tabled by the Green Party to declare a ‘climate emergency’ that was passed by the council in November 2018. The motion compelled the mayor to make an action plan on carbon reduction in line with the ambitious pledge to make the city carbon neutral by 2030.
A central plank to the mayor’s action plan is to create an Environmental Sustainability Board with ‘city partners’ which will lead in the creation of a One City Climate Strategy for Bristol. Other initiatives included pursuing a new mass transit system and improving energy efficiency on housing.
Speaking of the administration’s achievements, the mayor pointed to the city’s recycling rates as the best of the UK’s main cities, establishing Hartcliffe Recycling Centre, and securing funding for the City Leap project to transform the city’s energy infrastructure, and plans to assess the carbon footprint of all future developments, among others.
Yet Mayor Marvin Rees faced criticism from the three opposition parties for not taking action quickly enough. Future plans were outlined but lacked clarity around timelines for implementation, or whether extra funding would be needed to deliver them.
With the council’s own activities responsible for just 0.8% of total emissions in Bristol, one
plan is for the authority to influence Bristol businesses to create their own climate action strategies. However, it’s not clear how the council will bring this to bear on the private sector.
Councillor Marg Hickman (leader of the Labour councillors) said the plans “showed that Labour are leading the way on the environment” and that the opposition parties were obstructing progress.
Unsurprisingly, opposition parties hit back with accusations that the administration’s plans lacked urgency. Councillor Claire Hiscott for the Conservatives called the report “piecemeal” and “flimsy” and may have surprised others by saluting Extinction Rebellion.
Councillor Carla Denyer for the Greens said, “We have to be clear, this report does not constitute an emergency response or a change from business as usual. It’s making plans for boards to meet and research to be commissioned next year.”
The limits of local authority power in the face of a global crisis
While the Labour-led administration may have legitimately come under fire for not doing enough, limits of the council’s powers is a key factor.
Earlier in the month, the mayor led a motion at the Local Government Association conference to declare a climate emergency which was unanimously endorsed by 435 councils. This forms efforts to lobby central government for more national action and more funding for local authorities.
“Ultimately, without support, funding and clarity from central government, delivering on 2030 will be impossible,” Rees said.
Paul Allen, who leads the Zero Carbon Britain project at the Centre for Alternative
Technology, also emphasises that central government must lead the way by formulating a nationwide climate emergency action plan.
“[Bristol] only has control over so many things, it needs to fit those into a plan for the whole of the west of England, which needs to fit into a plan for the whole of the UK,” he says.
“Once we see a [national] Climate Emergency Action Plan we can start skilling up, supporting businesses, and support local authorities. But we need a plan from government which is commensurate with the emergency that we face.”
The UK government was criticised by the European Commission in June for its climate action plans being ‘unclear’, lacking details and focusing on transport and housing but evading key elements such as boosting the renewables sector.
However, Allen says there are things local authorities can and should be doing, from changing what food is served in schools and hospitals to supporting schools and other institutions to switch to green energy providers. Bristol Green Party has also proposed low-cost programmes they say could be easily introduced such as workplace parking levies.
Criticisms around a lack of urgency echo those related to the much delayed Clean Air Plan which would also have carbon reduction benefits.
Evading big decisions or balancing interests?
The mayor is facing pressure from the Green Party to publicly oppose Bristol Airport expansion plans to curb the climate crisis. Bristol Airport wants to expand by 50% with a 59% increase in carbon emissions by 2026. Rees has repeated his support for the airport expansion, which he says will bring thousands of much needed jobs to south Bristol. The decision on the airport is expected to be taken by North Somerset Council this September.
Rees has frequently said that addressing the environment and social justice must go hand
in hand, and has challenged the Greens to propose an alternative for the jobs that the airport expansion is claimed to bring. As he told the meeting on Tuesday, “While it’s the poorest who will be hit first and hardest by climate destruction, its poverty, which robs people of the emotional and financial space to think beyond today’s crisis.”
But airport expansion and increased flights run completely contrary to what’s needed to address climate change.
The Committee for Climate Change reported this May that in order to meet the UK’s target of zero net carbon emissions by 2050, the population would have to drastically change our lifestyles from what food we eat, what we buy and how we travel – including a dramatic reduction in the number of flights we take. Currently, just 15% of people are responsible for 70% of flights taken. The mayor himself emphasised the need for individuals to take action to reduce their carbon footprints in his address to council.
As Paul Allen says, “It’s money we need for the right transition going into infrastructure that will be invested into things which will lock us into heavy fossil fuel use. It’s absolutely crazy.”
Can staying invested in fossil fuels be better for the climate?
When it comes to key decisions it’s not just airports that the administration has come under fire for.
A motion presented on Tuesday by Green councillor Martin Fodor and backed by the Unison trade union challenged the council to step up efforts to lobby Avon Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels. The fund manages pensions worth £5 billion for 106,000 current and retired local authority workers in the area. The funds’ managers have consistently maintained that engaging with fossil fuel companies to improve their practises is the best way forward for the climate, and as revealed by the Cable has even increased investment in major fossil fuel companies, totalling about £50 million.
However, this strategy is controversial when compared to the scale and urgency of the crisis and the vested interests of fossil fuel companies. Globally, over 1000 institutions have divested from fossil fuels, according to the campaign Go Fossil Free, including several local government pension funds. Earlier this month, Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, along with Tory MP Zac Goldsmith called on the government to divest from fossil fuels. Bristol University pledged to divest from fossil fuels in 2017 following a concerted campaign by students and others.
Bristol’s Labour party proposed an amendment to the divestment motion that expanded its reach to the much larger Brunel Fund, worth £30 billion, of which the council’s own Avon Pension Fund is one part. Controversially, they argued that remaining ‘in the discussion’ with companies like Shell as opposed to divestment, was preferable to ‘walking away’.
The amended motion passed as the Greens declared it toothless and refused to vote for it, with Councillor Foder saying that “the time for dialogue with fossil fuel companies is so clearly over.”
Bristol City Council has ‘talked the talk’ on climate change, becoming the first to declare a climate emergency. But this past week’s developments show the road ahead is littered with obstacles, some of which can be cleared by council, and others which are out of its control.