Scientists have given us less than 12 years to slash greenhouse gases worldwide in order to have a chance of preventing runaway climate breakdown that will bring civilisation to its knees. Some people still scoff at this, but they are, to be blunt, wrong.
At the time of writing we have a UK government and parliament paralysed by Brexit. But out in the country there has been a wave of councils, big and small, declaring climate emergencies and setting targets for zero CO2 emissions by 2030. Shrewsbury has joined this. Shropshire has set up a ‘Task and Finish’ group of councillors to look at how the county authority can do its bit. Alongside this we have seen a growing movement of ‘climate strikes’ in schools and colleges, with young people demanding action now. So what steps need to follow in our county?
The biggest issue for the world is energy production. Yet we now know how to harness wind, solar and other sources of energy more cheaply than old and dirty sources like oil, gas and coal. What can be done locally? Well, it turns out Shropshire has the potential to produce enough energy from clean sources for up to 1/5th of the West Midlands needs.
We need new strategies and planning policies to encourage and facilitate renewable energy production. This includes a rethink on wind power, where there is a need to have sites identified in the Local Plan if they are likely to succeed at planning. No such sites were in the recent Preferred Sites consultation. Are there any in the pipe line that can be brought forward?
Development sites can be required to produce a proportion of there own energy. The technology is straightforward, and getting better all the time, from photo voltaic with batteries, to ground source heat pumps and beyond.
Energy use, new build and ‘retrofitting’
We don’t just need to produce clean energy, we also need to reduce energy use if we are to reach the targets. Again, we now how to do this. Homes and workplaces can be built that produce no greenhouse gas emissions over all, and this is also means virtually zero energy bills. At the moment it costs about 8% more to build ‘clean’, and this will come down the more we insist on builders using this technology.
We need planning policy that insists on ‘Zero Carbon’ building from now on. Despite fears to the contrary, there is no block on planning policy requiring energy efficient standards above building regulations (page 10). The Chancellor’s Spring Statement included a ‘future homes standard’ to mandate an end to fossil fuel heating systems in new homes from 2025. Individual schemes in Shropshire and neighbouring authorities are coming on stream that reach very high standards, but the county will get left behind if the current local plan review does not make this a requirement.
We also have to ‘retrofit’ older buildings to reduce their energy use – and their bills.
Here, individuals and successful businesses can take a lead.
Retrofitting can be expensive, but this money is recovered through massive savings on bills. Councils should encourage those in our community who can to do this now by providing information and guidance, and encouraging firms that can carry out the work to a high standard. This then helps to build the skills and workforce locally that makes it easier and cheaper for the councils, housing associations, private landlords and small businesses to also make this investment.
Ironbridge Power Station site
This should be an iconic development for the 21st Century, showcasing the best of what can be done. Does Shropshire want to be outdone by Rugeley?
Transport is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. Whilst vehicles have got more efficient over the years, the miles covered have increased and so there has been no overall fall in greenhouse gases. Transport needs to be clean and the vehicle miles need to be cut.
Councils should be investing in clean vehicles for their own fleets and those of its major contractors. Veolia has trialled electric vehicles, so these should become a requirement as soon as feasible.
Public transport, cycling and walking infrastructure needs to be developed – plenty has been written on this elsewhere.
Planning policy should require developments to include covered secure bicycle parking; dedicated car free routes on and off site; high quality public transport information (‘live’ bus time information at key points in a development for example) and electric charging points, whether active (i.e. with a charging post) or passive (i.e. infrastructure under ‘plates’ ready for charging points). In rural areas where bus routes remain unsustainable developers could be required to establish shared electric vehicle clubs or other schemes to enable sustainable transport.
The provision of infrastructure for electric vehicles is developing rapidly in cities but it will remain poor in rural areas and small towns without encouragement and persuasion. Think of Shropshire’s experience with broadband. But there are schemes. As well as Highways England investing in charging points on main routes there are schemes to help appropriate businesses such as restaurants, hotels and sports clubs establish charging points. And there is a need to follow through on commitments to do the same on the council’s own sites.
Staff transport plans also need development. A sustainable transport allowance could replace free parking, with the added benefit of freeing up some land.
As the authority for a rural county Shropshire Council needs to give a lead in transforming agriculture. Looking after wildlife means that wildlife helps to look after us – by absorbing back some of the greenhouse gases and regenerating the biodiversity that underpins sustainable lives for all species. Sadly, wildlife is in as much of a crisis as the climate, with huge falls in the number of insects needed to pollinate crops. Fields are almost empty of worms which act to break up the soil. The councils could call farmers and land users together and provide advice, incentives and policies that steer them towards clean farming and growing.
Shrewsbury – known as the Town of Flowers, could be a national leader in Planting for the Planet.
A Climate Emergency Hub?
Recently a shop in Shrewsbury was used as a centre for promoting and consulting on the Big Town Plan. Shropshire owns plenty of empty shop units in the towns shopping centres. How about having a dedicated centre for addressing the climate emergency? This could include public and private partners providing education, information, advice and guidance on:
- The scale of the emergency that faces us: independent, well presented information.
- What the councils are doing: news on policies, investments and adaptations.
- How to retrofit your home: information and marketing opportunities for appropriate building firms.
- The Business Environment Network supported by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust.
- How to keep your home warm and your bills down: information and advice from the Marches Energy Agency.
- Community Campaigns (Friends of the Earth and other campaigners)
- Learning about the climate and biodiversity (space for activities or displays from the University Centre, College or Schools)
- Coffee! (bring in or buy your Shrewsbury Cup, filled by a neighbouring coffee shop).
What would our county look like if we did all this? Would it look poorer? Would it be a return to the stone age? Of course not. We’d have warm homes that are cheap to run. We’d have towns and villages with less pollution that are more pleasant to move around. We’d have healthier children used to walking and cycling. We’d have a countryside renewed with the plants, birds and insects that we need to sustain life. And we’d have a much, much more secure future.