Paris changed everything last week. A genuinely positive outcome at the climate change talks, even if only the beginning, is a significant contrast to the disaster of Copenhagen six years ago. Fossil fuels are on their way out – within our lifetime a shift to clean energy will take place across the world. It also signals that we are moving from an era in which climate policy was all about rhetoric, to one of fixed targets and real-world delivery.
So action must follow words to make the most of that moment. David Cameron said at the COP: “We must make sure that we are delivering on the things that we said we would deliver on here in Paris.” The current evidence is that his government will struggle to meet this challenge. But it doesn’t need to be that way. There are the seeds of a genuinely positive clean energy opportunity in government policy. It just might not be where he thinks.
As many have pointed out, the government’s leadership in Paris has not been backed up by action here in the UK. Cuts to solar subsidies, restrictions on onshore wind, the scrapping of Carbon Capture and Storage funding and the choking off of community renewable schemes have made Cameron’s commitments in Paris seem somewhat disingenuous.
But where national energy policy might be going in the wrong direction, the government’s devolution agenda offers an opportunity for our towns and cities to take action. In Paris a thousand mayors committed to climate actions, including shifting to 100 per cent clean energy. They see the upsides. Cities such as Munich, Sydney, Vancouver and Copenhagen aim to get to 100 per cent clean energy by mid-century not just because it’s necessary, but because there are real upsides.
The upsides could be achieved here too. There is a significant spread of jobs across all UK regions and nations and in 2014 – 97,000 businesses across the UK operating in low carbon economy. It represents one of the fastest growing parts of the economy –showing significant, year on year, growth over the period 2010 to 2013, with employment growing at 3.8 per cent and turnover at 7.6 per cent.
Cities that have cleaner air, more energy efficient buildings, better designed public spaces and transport links, are cities where people will want to live: reducing carbon pollution has immediate benefits for residents in terms of health and well-being, jobs and business opportunities. The fact it also prevents cities from being locked in to depending on clapped out technologies is a longer term consideration: essential for creating places where people will want to live and work for decades to come. No wonder so many mayors want to lead the way.
This momentum is symbolised by the pledges of the mayors in Paris. Those will be made concrete with the support of organisations like C40 – a global network of megacities – and ICLEI that promotes local government action across the world.
The UK government has championed devolution, so this is a great opportunity for them to develop that agenda with a clear goal: to build regional economic powerhouses no longer dependent on fossil fuels, and fit for the new energy era.
Dozens of city leaders have already shown their commitment to tackling climate change with their own pledge to go 100 per cent clean energy by 2050.
With devolution deals being negotiated with nearly all parts of the country and seven already being struck – now is the time for local government leaders to act on climate change.
Led by advances in technology, we are on the cusp of a revolution in energy use and generation, transport, building design, and resource use all driven by innovations in information management. These changes are inevitable and are part of a global story – so why isn’t our collective response to get ahead of the curve and learn how to power our economy with energy sources that are clean, small-scale, and decentralised?
Through this revolution, we could reduce and eventually eliminate our dependence on dirty fuel imported from some of the most unstable and intolerant regions of the world. Our cities could become cleaner, quieter and safer. Our children could breathe air that doesn’t clog up their lungs and threaten their health. All our homes could be warm and dry. New green spaces could give our children the room they need to grow, and all of us the space we need to run, sit, dream, rest and meet our neighbours.
To make the most of this revolution, we have to grab it by both hands. We can either allow the future to be designed and built by others – or we can grasp the opportunity it represents, and make it our own. The moment of choice is now. If we want to be able to tell our children that we remade the world for them, we need to act.
So the opportunity to pivot out of a narrative that is all about cuts to clean energy, towards a story about clean, smart cities is both viable and in line with what is already happening internationally. The government could start by giving cities powers like: the formal authority to create, own and run local energy companies for local benefit and the ability to explicitly borrow for their energy infrastructure and investment through the Public Works Loan Board and the Green Investment Bank.
They could allow cities oversight and control of all the ECO and related levies paid by their citizens and ensure the UK system of energy regulation (and the work of Ofgem) is pro city scale energy generation, supply and management.
The government should set up a local authority or place based energy unit jointly between DCLG & DECC (akin to the technology support units that already exist in DECC) to support the growth of city energy, and smart energy systems. This would also add value to the work of innovateUK in this area and provide a boost to exports.
Collaboration between our cities should also be stepped up. Organisations like C40 and ICLEI have shown that cooperation between cities accelerates the transition to a low carbon economy – a UK wide organization for towns and cities should be an easy solution to do the same. IPPR recently recommended creating the UK:50; a grouping of the 50 largest cities and towns across the UK that would cooperate on clean energy programmes and expertise.
The government now faces the challenge of squaring its leadership in Paris with its actions at home. Internationally, cities are using the challenge of a changing climate to radically redesign their infrastructure, and using this process to improve the lives of those living there. This same opportunity is available here in the UK. The government should take it.
Scott Langdon is Associate Director of Here Now