york carbon zero
By Christian Vassie in GLD Challenge magazine 2020-21
York: Getting real about carbon zero
And so they built a cluster of passive homes in the heart of York to demonstrate how transforming construction would deliver the carbon zero future. When the last roof tiles were in place and the last licks of paint brushed across the low carbon plasterboard, the houses went on sale and weeks later the happy Harrison family moved in. A couple of years later those who had created the homes returned to measure the Harrison's carbon footprint to show the world how the new homes had contributed to a safer, greener, zero carbon future and …
… they were very disappointed. When? What? … Why were the carbon footprints no better than if they had done nothing at all?
It turned out that the £1500 a year the Harrisons saved on their heating bills had all been splashed on an extra holiday, flights to Bali for a week-long winter break. The carbon emissions from their flights had more than cancelled out the carbon savings from their new home. Insulating a home had delivered zero carbon benefit.
In the "I am greener than you are" battle that can all too easily overwhelm the political debate it is tempting for all politicians to peddle the story that government can by itself fix the climate crisis. But the coronavirus pandemic has surely taught us that tackling global challenges is not something that governments can do to people; solving global challenges is something that governments can only do with people.
Unless we are all persuaded to change our behaviour it doesn't ultimately matter how hard governments try to fix things. And so it is with climate change.
In a unanimous vote in March 2019 the city's councillors committed to deliver a zero carbon York by 2030. While, as chair of the council's Climate Change committee, I am proud that councillors showed the courage to declare a climate emergency I know that creating a zero carbon York is not something the council can do to the city; that is something we must do together.
The council can commit to delivering a zero carbon council by 2030 because that is in the council's gift. We can switch the council's car and lorries over to electric vehicles, and power council buildings and streetlights with renewable energy. We change the way we build new council homes, retrofit all the old council homes to passive house standard, change the cleaning products and food used by council services, buy IT equipment that is energy efficient. All that will cost hundreds of millions of pounds but it is doable.
We can change planning regulations to ensure that all new developments make use of local renewable energy: geothermal energy from aquifers and old mine workings, heat pumps, wind, water, waste, and sun. We can draw up plans to create a new zero carbon transport network and new consolidated freight centres to encourage electric lorries. We could encourage all new buildings to incorporate urban vertical farms to reduce carbon emissions from food. We can switch council staff's pensions away from CO2 emission producing oil, coal, steel, and cement.
The council can inspire change and show leadership but if we pretend to the city that we can deliver a zero carbon York by 2030 then we are effectively dooming ourselves to short-term measures that will make it look like we're busy without actually engaging with the really hard work that is needed from all of us; council, businesses and residents alike.
The world is currently producing 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year. Twelve electric waste trucks, eleven solar panels, ten fancy scooters, nine ground source heat pumps … two cycle tracks and a vegan dinner in the pantry will not deliver carbon zero. The challenge is bigger than that.
By the summer, thanks to the work of our new head of carbon reduction, we will have agreed our council's zero carbon pathway. We are applying ourselves to transforming the commitment to climate action in our endlessly delayed and ungratified Local Plan, which is now officially old enough to collect its pension. These documents will inform the work of the new climate commission that must show how business can help to deliver real change across the city.
But let's stop kidding ourselves. Councils cannot deliver a zero carbon future for us while we watch. To believe that is to believe that a recycling centre reduces landfill whether or not we residents play our part in separating our rubbish.
To deliver the safe, greener future we all want for our children we must all - the Harrisons and you and me - accept our responsibility to work with our local authority to change our behaviour together.
Christian Vassie Feb 2021