One topic dominated the 2019 ADEPT Autumn Conference: climate change and the scale of the challenge for local authorities and others in tackling it. Chris Ames reports from the ancient city of Bath where place directors looked to the future.
While climate change was a constant theme, it was rarely discussed in isolation. Indeed, the strapline for the conference was ‘Well-connected places in a changing world’.
Giving the keynote address, West of England mayor Tim Bowles said: ‘The challenge we all have as placemakers is, how do we develop our places and our economy with climate change in mind.’
Professor Dieter Helm CBE (pictured, right), of Oxford University and chair of the Natural Capital Committee put climate change within the context of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan of which carbon is one of 10 goals.
He said: ‘That’s crucial. Carbon is one of the environmental considerations. It’s not a silo; it’s not the overarching objective to which everything else must be subjected.
‘You can do a hell of a lot of harm pursuing just climate change. You can plant eucalyptus trees over the entire countryside. You would sequestrate carbon pretty quick – and decimate our biodiversity and do fantastic damage to our river systems. So it’s one of several.’
Wrong! Seriously wrong!
Prof Helm also warned: ‘Net zero isn’t quite what the Climate Change Committee and the politicians tell you it is. There’s a clear statement in the Climate Change Committee’s report that says when we get to net zero we will no longer be contributing to climate change. Wrong! Seriously wrong!
‘Because if that was true, if it was just about reducing emissions, in your area, in this country, then the fastest way to get to net zero would be to close British Steel, Ineos, the car industry, in fact close down all the large energy users in this country.
‘And of course, what would happen? We’d import the stuff from China instead. And would the emissions be higher or lower? A lot higher. Indeed that’s what Europe has been doing for the last 30 years. There are no large energy intensive projects in Europe at all now. They’re in America, in China and elsewhere. We’ve basically swapped domestic emissions for imported carbon emissions.
‘So once you think through what it would mean to be net zero, in the sense of having no more impact on climate change, what the public thinks we can agree, it’s much more radical than you might think at this stage.’
Prof Helm, an economist, also spoke of the need to ‘make this economic’. He said: ‘What we are doing at the moment is not sustainable but very rarely do people draw the conclusion: therefore it will not be sustained.
‘You cannot abolish the consequences by sticking your head in the sand and pretending that they’re not going to be there. They are there, they’re really serious, and this is a fantastic economic opportunity to put that right.’
In a later question and answer session, Prof Helm put the issue in the context of what local authorities can do. He said: ‘Everyone’s terribly excited about there being an emergency. And everyone’s terribly excited about there being a crisis.
‘If you’re an economist, you focus very heavily on costs. The really special thing of this is to focus on what is no regret. Which are the bits that you would have to do anyway if you were to improve the lot of your jurisdiction – even if there wasn’t any climate change.
‘It turns out, there are an enormous number of no regret things to do anyway. So air quality is something you have to address because…the economic costs of damaging air quality are just horrendously large.
‘Local transport is something that everyone will have to deal with because there’s going to be another 10 million people and the economic growth rate and all the housing that’s going to have to be built, there’s going to be an enormous transport issue, which can also be done in a low carbon way.’
The second morning of the conference saw a representative of each of the eight ADEPT Live Labs projects gave a quick, four-minute ‘pitch’ to set out their projects. Again climate change was an ever-present theme.
The issue of climate change was very much to the fore in the final session of the conference as well, a live question time in which a panel debated the issue of ‘place-based funding in a post Brexit world’.
Answering a question from the floor as to what was more important for ADEPT, funding or climate change, Mr Eyers said: ‘Carbon Change, because that needs funding.’
He added: ‘I think there’s no doubt climate change, is something for those of us who have been members of ADEPT for a few years, has always been top of our agenda but it’s only really hit public consciousness in such a major way this last year.
‘I think you will see climate change become more and more a top priority for us as ADEPT; you’ll see Nigel [Riglar] as president next year talking about what authorities, as we come towards COP 26, and ADEPT needs to position itself as the leading professional body, that expertise, that best practice, that ability to bring professionals together to look at how we make a real difference in our localities.’