Seismic shift in the climate movement

Seismic shift in the climate movement

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Paul Allen outlines a week’s travel amongst the growing wave of organisations that are speaking from the heart, accepting that past goals are now history and planning for a Zero Carbon Britain.

In December 2016 a council meeting in Darebin, Australia declared: “Council recognises that we are in a state of climate emergency that requires urgent action by all levels of government, including by local councils.” And so began the ‘climate emergency’ movement.

The scale and speed of the evolution of this movement in the 18 months since has been astounding to witness. Since November last year, it has accelerated across the UK, Australia, USA, Canada and Switzerland. As of the beginning of April, 68 town, city and county councils across Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England have declared climate emergencies and are building plans to reach net-zero on timelines from 2028 to 2038.

It’s often hard to pin down the shape of the evolving zeitgeist, but what I keep hearing is a growing social recognition that ‘we must, and will, act’. One of the key reasons climate change is such a serious problem is that it is nonlinear. It contains many systems that feed back on each other and accelerate change. There is also growing recognition that the reason why we now face an emergency situation is that governments and industry have not acted fast enough.

Thankfully, our human response is also non-linear and contains an emerging array of feedbacks which can accelerate the solutions. This is what we are now seeing across many countries: new leadership at town, city and regional level scaling-up, cross-fertilising again and again, and so becoming the new normal. There are many more declarations in the pipeline, so it is only a matter of time before this changes the national political and cultural narratives.

Here at CAT, we are truly feeling the wave. We have never had so many requests for Zero Carbon Britain presentations, and I have never, ever been this busy. Whilst this is exhausting, it is also highly uplifting, as this is exactly the social shift that CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain project (ZCB) was developed to support.

Here is a brief overview of one week spent travelling the country talking to a wide range of different groups about how we can reach zero carbon and prevent climate breakdown. I hope some of these stories might prove useful to other groups working on climate emergency action processes for their own areas.

Greener Tywyn first anniversary gathering

The small Welsh coastal town of Tywyn, near CAT, has shown exciting grassroots leadership. During its first year, the Greener Tywyn group has undertaken a range of practical actions such as recycling and clearing beaches of plastic; then on 13th February this year, following a unanimous decision by the Town Council, Tywyn became the first town in the county of Gwynedd to declare a climate emergency.

Working alongside Greener Tywyn, the town council are now developing action plans to: reduce Tywyn’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero as soon as possible; make Tywyn more resilient to climate impacts; and maximise the local benefits of these actions in sectors such as health, agriculture, transport and the economy.

Their enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that a few weeks later the whole county of Gwynedd also declared an emergency. Hosted by the local independent cinema, this anniversary event brought together a range of practical projects to share ideas and inspiration. My role in the celebration was to use the cinema screen to tell ‘The Extraordinary Story of Human Beings, Energy and Happiness’, a presentation that begins with the birth of the sun, and ends with a Zero Carbon Britain!

Manchester Mayor’s ‘Green Summit’

From the tiny coastal town of Tywyn, I took the train north to one of the UK’s largest and oldest urban areas – the Manchester Metro region.

Back in 2018, driven by analysis from the Tyndall Centre, the Metro Mayor Andy Burnham’s initial Green Summit launched an ambitious process to make Greater Manchester one of the leading green city-regions in the UK and Europe. Now a year on, following input from Zero Carbon Britain and deep collaboration with all parts of the ‘Greater Manchester family’, from electricity grid operators to transport providers, an initial five-year action plan was launched at this year’s Green Summit.

The event was packed, filling Manchester’s Lowry Centre. The ‘5-Year Environment Plan’ sets out the long-term vision to be carbon neutral by 2038 – outlining the urgent actions Manchester needs to take. The event was opened by the growing voice of youth calling on us to galvanise this commitment and unify our actions.

There was also honest recognition that there is still a ‘gap’ between the detailed plans agreed and the actions needed to ensure that we keep to 1.5°C of warming, and so avoiding really dangerous climate impacts. My role was to share Zero Carbon Britain amongst the many attendees.

The voices of young people are ringing louder than ever on the issue of climate change. There is a new groundswell of pressure calling for more decisive and extreme action on climate change. The Mayor’s Green Summit organisers recognised the need to include young people in their event, so schools from across Greater Manchester were invited to attend.

We need to respond to this together but those with the power to implement change are the ones that need to step up and act: it is the responsibility of adults to make change happen.”

Raichael Lock, Coordinator Manchester Environmental Educators Network

Kendal: National Grid to National Park

After Manchester, I headed north to Kendal in the Lake District for a run of three powerful events.

Leading the North West to Zero Carbon

The first event was an invitation to input the technical detail from our Zero Carbon Britain research into Electricity North West’s consultation event on power grid management plans, outlined in their new ‘Leading the North West to Zero Carbon’ report. This is a vision to create and manage a dynamic and interactive electricity network that can cope with the doubling of demand as society switches from fossil fuels to renewable electricity as the main way we move energy around. Electricity North West clearly recognise that the adoption of electric vehicles, solar generation and battery storage isn’t just advantageous but essential. As well as significantly  contributing to achieving low carbon targets, they are making plans that enable smart energy systems to allow people to participate in energy markets in new ways and to share the rewards of this transformation.

A few days after the event, the UK National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) announced that the UK power system will be ‘zero carbon ready’ by 2025.

Lake District Leaders’ Summit

I was then invited to join a ‘climate summit’ for local leaders, including CEOs, mayors and chairs of partnership organisations from the region, who were exploring what rising to the climate emergency means for Cumbria. This was an incredibly moving vent as many senior leaders clearly spoke from their hearts, recognising that previous low-carbon targets were no longer relevant and that a significant increase in ambition must begin immediately.

Lake District National Park Authority

The Lake District National Park Authority’s climate action plan, The Low Carbon Lake District Initiative, was launched a decade ago, but in light of revised climate science they now expect that their emissions reduction targets will need to be radically improved.

Their 10th anniversary event included presentations from Lancaster University’s Dr Becky Willis and Professor Mike Berners-Lee outlining key lessons from a decade of action in the Lake District, showing that we can tackle climate change in ways that strengthen local communities and economies. My presentation demonstrated that a rapid transition to zero carbon is not only technically possible, but brings a wealth of co-benefits.

This was well received, with a range of practical questions in the discussion session which followed. Again, there was a new sense of ambition in the air. Lake District National Park CEO Richard Leafe made it very clear that the dormant period was over, even though they had been working to climate plans for a decade, previous targets would now be scrapped and replaced my much more ambitious goals.

“We are used to hearing about tipping points in the Earth’s climate system. We are now approaching a tipping point in what we consider to be socially acceptable behaviour in terms of action on climate change. Could your council be the one that tips the balance, reaches critical mass and leads to the national declaration of climate emergency and the rapid transition to zero carbon we so desperately need?”

Hazel Graham, Chief Executive Cumbria Action for Sustainability

Climate and Environmental Emergency Conference, Lancaster

The next day I moved on to Lancaster Town Hall, which was hosting a Climate and Environmental Emergency Conference. With governments failing to take effective action on climate change, local councils from across the UK came together to share experiences of planning a response.

Their ultimate aim is a national declaration of a Climate and Environmental Emergency, with its ability to unlock all the required policy changes and funds for a rapid climate emergency mobilisation, so local councils are setting the ball rolling by sharing successful climate emergency initiatives at the local level.

Workshops included: getting carbon targets into local plans, engaging local authorities in the energy debate, the direct and indirect impacts of climate change on physical and mental health, the potential co-benefits of concerted action, and the role
of Citizen Assemblies to devise plans.

My role was to share Zero Carbon Britain as an opening keynote speech then run a workshop to explore the ways of overcoming barriers to change. I also ran a Land Use and Carbon Capture workshop with Mike Berners-Lee, exploring ways of changing land use so that carbon is captured rather than emitted.

Again, the event was packed, opening many powerful conversations, sharing ideas and information to help ensure that urgent, effective action is taken.

“The extraordinary rate at which local councils are declaring a Climate Emergency is like a wave that is breaking over the inertia that previously governed so many of those outside of the general environmental movement. It is at long last possible to believe that the tide is turning in our favour. We may not yet be on the crest of that wave, but the momentum for urgent action is building at a speed unseen in our lifetimes. CAT deserves enormous credit for the part it has played in this, from having created ripples of awareness all those years ago, to having initiated and produced Zero Carbon Britain in its various iterations, which is now the go-to ‘bible’ for anyone looking to discover practical and achievable ways of living in harmony with the planet.”

John Bodger, Chair, Penrith Action for Community Transition

zero carbon britain

Next steps

This was all in a single week, and there are many more events on the calendar, from Swansea to Glasgow and from Bath to Bonn – plus, here at CAT, we’ve added a second Zero Carbon Britain short course in December and our annual CAT conference will continue the themes taken up during the Emergency Climate Summit we ran in May.

So many organisations are making their voices heard, accepting past goals are now history and planning for zero carbon. There is a growing acceptance that, with just 12 years to make big changes, we only have a couple of years to agree the plans and organise the kit!


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