Commentary on the Coventry Council Climate Change debate of 18-6-19 by Dr Alastair Smith, Tile Hill resident.
In response to the international and local Climate Strike of May 2019, individual Coventry Councillors, including the Council Leader[i], stepped back from the global wave of action, stating unambiguously that they “would not declare a state of emergency”[ii].
Somewhat fortunately, following further local grassroots action, the collective assembly have re-examined electoral opinion – which nationally, now rates concern for the environment third in a list of priorities, even ahead of the economy, crime and immigration [iii] – in unanimously supporting a motion that does recognise the existence of a “Climate Change Emergency”.
This is certainly a positive step, even if the necessity to avoid contradiction with previous refusal required the use of rather indirect and therefore unconvincing language. However, despite over 1.5 hours of so-called ‘debate’[iv], during which it was constantly repeated that the council aspires to lead the nation in carbon transition, the only action agreed in writing was to do nothing new what-so-ever.
Following a compelling outline of climate change impacts, a secondary focus of the motion’s presentation by Cllr Jim O’Boyle – Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration – was to recount at length the council’s purported stellar record in having “led the way” on sustainability and climate action. This discussion did include some relevant positive, pre-existing and contemporary plans: such as the addition of solar panels to the bus station, light rail and the facilitation of public subsidies to private transport companies for the introduction of low emission buses.
While it would be unfair to suggest these measures are not small steps in the right direction, the inability of elected representatives to escape talking at length about past actions and achievements, well summarises the current gravely inadequate position of the City’s Council.
Indeed, the motion’s presentation made strong reference to Coventry’s Carbon Plan of 2012, and highlighted the point that these targets had been achieved far earlier than expected, being reached in 2014, rather than 2020[v]. Sadly however, not one of the contributing councillors who spoke to the motion, from any of the political positions represented, raised concerns over the cabinet’s failure to renew targets any time in the last five years, despite the ramping global concern. Moreover, everyone seemed more than content that any new strategy would only come on line after the technical end of the existing, and now long redundant policy—meaning a further wait until after 2020 for any further concrete commitment, strategy or action.
Perhaps the most concerning part of this public performance was the failure to concretely respond to existing carbon neutrality targets – as already adopted across the length and breadth of the globe by other cities, including local neighbours such as Birmingham[vi], Nottingham[vii] and Leicester[viii].
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report of Oct 2018 categorically states that global carbon neutrality must be achieved by 2050 to keep below a post-industrial average temperature rise of 1.5 degrees – the level considered necessary to preserve a safe operating space for human development[ix]. As nations around the world have different starting points, carbon import/export balances[x], and capacities to respond, some will need to make cuts significantly beyond the average – and obviously this differential responsibility applies at all scales: including cities[xi] and individuals. For these reasons, the UKCCC recommended in May 2019, that while Scotland might aspire to neutrality by 2045, England should hit this by 2050 and Wales should aim for a 95% reduction in Greenhouse Gases by the same year[xii].
Sadly, the UKCCC targets are already deeply problematic as they are inexplicably based on the 2007 IPCC 4th Report[xiii], and as such entirely ignore the adjusted requirement for global neutrality from 2070 to 2050, as outlined 7 months previously by the updated Special IPCC release. This makes the target of the UKCCC already overly pragmatic and instantly redundant as a fair and reasonable expectation for the world’s 5/6th biggest economy, especially when compared to other countries like Norway, which have already committed to neutrality by 2030[xiv]. The interpretation is even more pessimistic in the light of recent updates from IPCC scientists, who have suggested that current projections of warming are likely still seriously underestimated[xv].
It is for these reasons, that when the UK City of Bristol, along with its prominent university, genuinely led the UK as early as November 2018 as the first city to directly declare a Climate Emergency, they also set the date for their own carbon neutrality according to aspirational necessity – and in so doing, created an unambiguous and scientifically derived target, a public point of reference against which their subsequent actions could be judged. The date they set for neutrality was 2030[xvi].
Despite this clear precedent set 8 months ago, Coventry Council felt no obligation to use the 1.5 hours of Council chamber time to establish or raise for debate, even a notional target based on scientific recommendations. Instead, they publically stated that in their view, the best way to lead the world in arresting the projected horrors of Climate Change is to carry on with business as usual. They have affirmed that despite the structural shift in knowledge that came in Oct 2018 – which fundamentally consigned any prior gains or actions to the realms of positive yet woefully inadequate – there is no need to commit yet, to anything that was not already planned in 2012.
To be fair, there were some positives to the discussion, and some contributors did offer practical and valuable suggestions. Jim O’Boyle’s public promise of participatory engagement to create a future strategy could be meaningful – though as ever the devil will be in the details. There was an excellent suggestion that a Climate Change portfolio be added to the Cabinet (ideally, free of the contradictions inherent in combining it with any existing responsibilities) and that Climate Change might be considered within all Scrutiny Committees. Some even suggested that Coventry might actually take the initiative, and instead of waiting for Whitehall to structure their response, could proactively experiment with innovative policy tools – and therefore follow other genuine leadership already been shown by Council’s elsewhere[xvii]. Unfortunately, however, none of the representatives, including the Conservative leader of the opposition, felt the agreed “Emergency” sufficiently grave to request any meaningful amendments be made to the motion, either (presumably) before or during the lengthy discussion.
To interpret the actions of Coventry Council in another way: 16 year old Gretta Thunberg aptly summarised the Global Climate Emergency with the interpretation that our collective, one and only “house is on fire”. Yet, despite enthusiastically supporting this sentiment, and even quoting it, Coventry’s Council has refused to pass a motion that committed to any concrete targets, or even a written statement on the ‘plan to produce a plan’. Instead, they agreed we should all sit down in the middle of the burning timber to think about things some more, and in the meantime, carry on exactly as we have been doing since 2012.
No one should expect elected local government representatives to know the route to the escape exit on our burning world: this will take significant scientific and technical research, analysis and collaboration. However, the fact that Council’s authority considered Tuesday’s debate a relevant use of precious time and resources should send a shock wave of no-confidence through the minds and hearts of anyone who truly understands the realities of our Climate Emergency; an appreciation of austerity notwithstanding, as this ‘justification’ will ring very hollow in the ears of Coventry’s future generations left with their feet to the burning timbers.
In summary, the hollow political performance in Coventry’s Council Chamber created more carbon than it will ever offset. The council must, or must be compelled, to remedy this situation with a new meaningful statement that sets a scientifically informed target for carbon reduction, which is provisionally, at least as strong as the national benchmark, and sets a codified timeline for publishing a full strategy, with clear waypoints for target adjustments as linked to future updated IPCC recommendations, as relevant to a city within one of the riches countries in the world. To be clear, operating in reverse, that is to only set targets after analysis of what can be achieved (and no doubt a healthy degree of political pragmatism in those that can’t be met), is not only to put the cart before the horse: it contributes to the crippling global inertia that is rapidly inflating the future cost of climate change, on a yearly, if not even now a daily basis.
List of Cited References
[iv] Watch from 1.52:00 3:30:00 at: https://coventry.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/427054/start_time/2922000
[v] Cllr O’Boyle stated the policy would end in 2021, 2:01:00: https://coventry.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/427054/start_time/2922000,although although the policy document states an end date of 2020: https://www.coventry.gov.uk/downloads/file/4874/climate_change_strategy_for_coventry
[x] A very significant factor overlooked by Jim O’Boyle presentation of China as one of two countries most responsible for current emissions. A significant amount of China’s emissions (1,369 Mt CO2) are embodied in products exported to other countries. Indeed, the UK is the world’s third largest importer of CO2, increasing its responsibility for emissions by some 36%, and meaning that while domestic emissions have been reduced, much of this has been offset by new imports – effectively meaning that instead of actually reducing CO2 production since the early 1990s, the UK has merely outsourced much of the direct responsibility to other countries: https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-worlds-largest-co2-importers-exporters