Now Is The Time…..

This piece was written with amazing timing by long-term key volunteer (and stalwart of the Climate Jobs sub-group) Chris Broome…

The last few weeks have seen schoolchildren demonstrating outside the Town Hall, Sheffield and many other councils declaring a climate emergency and Extinction Rebellion bringing parts of London to a standstill.

I have to admit to being taken by surprise by this sudden upsurge in activity. It is all too easy, as a long-standing campaigner, to slip quietly into despair, watching everyone else going about their business, apparently unaware of a growing climate crisis. So whilst this rapid increase in awareness is certainly welcome, what about the methods of the activists? Here, it is important to emphasise that many years of more conventional campaigning has not succeeded in persuading politicians to act with enough urgency. Some measures are being taken to mitigate climate change. But the world is still on course for what has been conservatively estimated at a three degree temperature rise, which is not just the fault of other countries. So now the costs of necessary action are unfortunately starting to rise, as are the risks from climate change. Thus the shock tactics of causing disruption do seem completely necessary to raise the profile of the issue.

There has been a host of political developments that relate to the protestors’ calls and it is impossible to fully unravel to what degree these are a result of the various protests.  Another very positive influence has been the visit to London and Parliament of the highly eloquent original school striker, 16 year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg.  Since then, Parliament has supported a Labour motion to declare a Climate Emergency, set a zero carbon date for before 2050 and create a “green industrial revolution”.  Whilst significant, note this is not a law and does not oblige the Government to act on it – you can read more about this here. Just the next day on 2 May, a report by independent advisors to the Government, the Committee on Climate Change, was released. This recommended a 2050 zero carbon date and a range of radical measures that will transform the whole economy – and without being expected to come at a much higher total cost than carrying on as we are. No doubt the Government will take time to consider these recommendations but initial signals seem positive.

In Sheffield, the Labour run Council passed a Motion in February to investigate how far an existing commitment for the city to be zero-carbon by 2050 could be brought forward.  The Greens and Liberal Democrats both proposed a 2030 target and in its local Election Manifesto, the Labour Party has since pledged to match or beat this date. Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion continue to press for 2025, both locally and nationally. The science on which any target is based is complex and will continue to be debated. 2030 is designed to be in line with an aim of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, whereas previously, most climate scientists had agreed two degrees should be the limit to aim for. It should be added that scientists’ recommendations have inevitably been affected by their view of politically realities, not just what is reasonably safe. We are already witnessing extreme weather around the world and temperature rise lags decades behind the emissions that cause it.  This BBC article here explains the science clearly.

Actually meeting a 2030 or earlier target, is a far bigger challenge than setting it. The Council has given itself six months to come up with a plan. But work can begin now and Sheffield Climate Alliance has set out a range of actions it can be getting on with in the meantime – find our ‘Initial Steps’ list about this here.

A concern of mine is that how decarbonisation will be achieved has featured so little in this debate so far. Many interested parties have been clear about their target dates but how are we going to get there?  A little-recognised barrier for our Council is that so many policies – on buildings, transport and planning, for example – are required to be based on Government guidelines. These are currently inadequate for dealing with climate change. Due to their complexity, even amending many of these guidelines to reflect much greater emphasis on new priorities is a mammoth task.

Then what physical measures should be taken? We are likely to need to replace gas boilers in the majority of homes, not just new ones but with what? Alternatives are available but do people have to develop lower expectations of comfort and convenience from, for example, heat pumps? Cars should be able to last for around twenty years but I have not yet heard calls to close down our car factories.  The usual answer to that point is that electric cars should replace petrol and diesel ones –  but batteries take vast amounts of energy to produce and battery supplies of them readily be scaled-up anyway. Using public transport may need to become the main way of getting around, especially in cities.

Fortunately, academics and politicians are increasingly discussing a “just transition” that would enable all workers and everybody else to have a place in a rapidly transforming world. This will clearly require plenty of support. All the authorities, businesses and organisations that work in Sheffield will need to come on board.  If that happens, we can be optimistic that the public will be supportive too.