Cutting carbon begins at home

2011: May

The current government promised to be the “greenest government ever”, but the UK’s carbon emissions are still too high, risking catastrophic climate change. However, many people don’t realise that 80% of emissions are as a result of local activity. We talk a lot about government action, but it’s time to bring the discussion closer to home.

Friends of the Earth, with the help of their partners in the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, have been organising meetings all over the country where people can meet their elected representatives and discuss local action to cut emissions. The meetings have been timed to happen while the Energy Bill, the first significant piece of green legislation to come from the current government, makes its way through Parliament.

David Cameron declined to attend the Witney meeting on 25th May, but Councillor David Harvey took his place. As a town, district and county councillor, Cllr Harvey represents three levels of local government.

Cllr Harvey spoke about some of central government’s positive measures to tackle climate change: feed-in tariffs, which are “absolutely galvanising green industries”, and the Green Investment Bank, which is “good news” for green businesses.

He explained that the July 2007 floods changed the district council’s attitude to our environment. “There were 11,000 families unable to move back into their own homes.” They decided at an early stage not to get into arguments about what causes climate change – they just focused on mitigating its effects, such as flooding, and trying to reduce emissions. They set up a climate change working group, with expert speakers coming to share their knowledge and best practice. They’ve set up a de-silting programme for the River Windrush to reduce the chances of its flooding again and are working to improve the flood warning system.

Cllr Harvey is aware that no single organisation can do a huge amount to cut global emissions, but believes it’s about taking responsibility for your own actions: “What we’ve done in West Oxfordshire is not in itself going to help our climate. But we need to reduce our own carbon footprint.” They are working with commercial partners such as Nexus Leisure (who run Windrush Leisure Centre in Witney) and May Gurney (who provide waste and recycling services) to help them reduce their emissions too. This is a mixture of no-brainer solutions like covering the swimming pool when not in use to keep it warm, and more serious moves like replacing May Gurney’s fleet of vehicles for more efficient ones.

They’re also offering a subsidised home insulation deal, which the Sustainable Witney blog will be covering in detail soon.

More controversially, Cllr Harvey believes in using local forest to power biomass boilers, which he believes have “huge potential”.

He described cultural change within the council as “like turning round a steamer in the Atlantic”. It’s slow because of the size of the organisation and entrenched attitudes, but it happens eventually. One of the biggest cultural changes has happened within the planning department as they become aware of sustainability issues.

Liz Hutchins praised the efforts made by West Oxfordshire before moving on to talk about central government’s track record on climate change. Out of the 77 green policies analysed in a recent report, only 19 had seen significant progress. But she acknowledged that the UK is showing a leadership role in tackling climate change.

I mentioned earlier that the Energy Bill, currently going through Parliament, is the first important piece of green legislation from the Coalition government. Liz Hutchins explained why the Bill's provision for cutting energy waste is so important: it’s very hard to maintain your standard of living and reduce emissions without doing so. Friends of the Earth believe that the Green Deal, one of the more exciting schemes contained in the Energy Bill, should “form part of a strategy to decarbonise the country’s housing stock”.

Ms Hutchins said that the Conservative Party worked with Friends of the Earth to campaign for climate change targets while still in opposition, and is still listening now it’s in power. “Government is listening: campaigning really works!” She said that the key to successful campaigning was to have both “a cogent argument and lots of support from people and organisations.”

They’re currently campaigning for greater regulation for landlords, to make it illegal for a property to be re-let if it pushes tenants into fuel poverty. The target to end fuel poverty is 2016, so it makes sense for government to be acting on it now.

After Ms Hutchins finished speaking, there was a lively question-and-answer session, with lots of different questions from members of the public. One person asked David Harvey how he deals with planners. The reply was “We bore them into submission,” which got laughter from the floor.

Several questions were on transport: what is West Oxfordshire District Council doing to encourage alternatives to the car? We heard from Debbie Haynes, Health and Environmental Policy Officer at the council, about the Sustainable Transport Forum and moves to encourage more cycling and walking such as improved cycle parking facilities. However, it was clear that the focus is more on “encouragement” - telling people to walk and cycle more – than on making the car a less attractive choice. Cllr Harvey was asked whether the council’s free car parking policy was encouraging more people to drive, but dodged the question. He was also asked about the carbon cost of the proposed Cogges Link Road, but had to admit he has no idea what this would be.

On a more positive note, he spoke about the thermal imaging work the council is doing to map fuel poverty in the district as well as work to keep sustainability at the forefront of planners’ minds.

One recurring theme throughout the evening was how much central government could do to help local government – for example, by changing planning law to make more sustainability measures compulsory. Liz Hutchins said that many councils have actually asked to be given a statutory duty to reduce local carbon emissions, and Cllr Harvey agreed that this would help councils like West Oxfordshire District Council to prioritise.

An interesting evening – and the turnout was proof that people in West Oxfordshire really do care about cutting carbon locally, as well as holding our local politicians to account.