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C’est la Ville! – Cllr Alex Sobel

Cllr Alex Sobel, Support Executive Member for Climate Change, Leeds City Council, reports on his recent trip to COP21 and the importance of cities in tackling climate change.

I have just returned from COP21 representing Leeds City Council as our Climate Change Lead. The discussions I had with those who were participating in the talks were encouraging. It was clear that the EU and US were working with a whole host of developing countries to try and get a deal at 1.5C, through the “high ambition coalition’. There has been resistance from BRIC countries and Gulf States for different reasons, but there are very few voices arguing against a binding deal and even fewer saying anything beyond a 2C rise will mean a liveable planet.

It will however be the local and regional authorities in these countries that will have to deliver the agreement signed at COP21. In particular the cities as the urban population is 54% of the world’s total and growing by about 1.5% a year; the UK is already 80% urban. The urban areas produce CO2 well in excess of its population share. Large cities are growing, with the UN estimating that 393 more cities will have passed the 500,000 population mark between 2011 and 2025. These councils, including those in the UK, will have to bear the burden for delivering our reduction in emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change. The cities I met from across the world where all totally committed to deliver, but most didn’t feel that national Governments were giving them the support they needed.

I spoke to a State Premier in Australia who was struggling with large scale solar as the Government refuse to introduce Feed in Tariffs and the States can only afford domestic Feed in Tariffs for residential properties. I commiserated with him, as we have just placed Solar Roofs on 35 Council Buildings and 1000 council homes in Leeds, but can’t extend the scheme to complete the rest of our council housing stock due to the Feed in Tariff cuts. If we could, it would drastically reduce our emissions and take many people out of fuel poverty. I met a Mayor of a City on an Indian Ocean Island who had big issues around flooding and couldn’t afford flood defences. A one metre rise in sea levels would be the end of their city; again I commiserated with him as the UK Government put Leeds flood defence scheme on hold in 2011 and we are only now getting a smaller scheme, with the council putting forward £10 million of the £45 million required. It remains to be seen if the scheme will be sufficient.

I met politicians and officers from cities in the UK who are doing great things for themselves. Bristol is this year’s European Green Capital and they have launched ‘One Tree Per Child’, which is a scheme to plant a tree for every Primary School Child in the city. They have planted over 30,000 trees already. In Manchester they have started a groundbreaking Carbon Literacy Project to empower people and businesses to understand how their activities affect the environment and foster a hegemonic shift from carbon illiteracy to carbon literacy in the UK. In Nottingham they have started their own energy services company called Robin Hood Energy. In Leeds we are converting our entire vehicle fleet to be electric, biomethane or hydrogen by 2025 and will be building our own fuelling station – not just for our fleet, but to encourage the private sector to convert as well.

The British Government at a strategic level are in the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ and should be congratulated for it. But their actions to support delivery on the ground have been lacking. The recent Autumn Statement provided support for shale gas extraction, research funds for small modular nuclear reactors whilst scrapping carbon capture and storage schemes and scrapping ECO funding and replacing it with a much smaller scheme.

If the Government wants to see the climate not exceed a 1.5C rise it needs to live up to its obligations and invest in our towns, cities and renewables industry to deliver it.

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