All words no action in Bristol

“I've said more times than I can remember that it cannot just be words. Declaring a climate emergency has to lead to real action.” In the latest instalment of our series What has Changed?, Bristol City Councillor Carla Denyer urges Bristol City Council to urgently make progress on its climate emergency action plans.

Bristol Council Building
Bristol Council Building
Carla Denyer

In November 2018 I proposed a motion calling on Bristol City Council to declare a Climate Emergency, commit the city to go carbon neutral by 2030, lobby national government for the powers and money necessary, and to report back to council within six months with the decarbonisation plan.

It passed unanimously; the first of over 400 such declarations made by local authorities across the United Kingdom.

Since then I've said more times than I can remember that it cannot just be words. Declaring a climate emergency has to lead to real action.

So what has happened in Bristol, and has it actually changed policies and reduced carbon emissions?

It’s not good news. There’s been little concrete action from either Bristol’s Labour administration or the Conservative Metro Mayor for the West of England, but we are up to our armpits in strategies, including:

  • Mayor’s climate emergency action plan: Announced by Bristol Mayor Rees in July 2019, nine months after declaration, the 12 pages restated the commitments already agreed with no indication how decarbonisation will be achieved.
  • Bristol One City Climate Strategy: Published in February 2020, this report documents the scale of the challenge, and lists some ‘delivery aims’ to ensure carbon neutrality by 2030. However it is not a detailed plan for decarbonisation, and little action has followed.

Myriad other strategies focus on specific topics. Bristol Council has an ambitious ‘City Leap’ public-private partnership proposal, which could help Bristol develop clean energy and energy efficiency projects – however, at present, it is just a procurement process. Mired in delays, it was launched in 2018, but restarted in July this year.

The council has also set a new Bristol Transport Strategy, nine months after the 2030 target was agreed – but it still aims for Bristol’s previous carbon neutral target of 2050. There is little detail and most of the work won’t be completed until 2036, kicking the can well down the road. The same can be said of the Tory-led West of England Combined Authority (WECA), which has woefully inadequate transport, energy and climate plans and is primarily promoting roadbuilding.

WECA does have a ‘Low Carbon Challenge Fund’, which offers energy efficiency grants for small and medium businesses – at present this could support £4.2 million of investment. This is welcome, but a drop in the ocean compared to what’s needed, much like Bristol Council’s own housing retrofitting programme.

And Bristol City Council is in the process of updating its Local Plan, which we hope will include a requirement for carbon neutral homes. However, this too was sent back to the drawing board and now isn’t expected to come into effect until Autumn 2023. Meanwhile new developments go up apace and are only required to meet the authority’s current paltry 20 per cent carbon reduction target.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for strategies and plans. But this just isn’t a sufficiently emergency-oriented response. In many cases we already know what needs to be done. Why are those in charge not just getting on with it?

To make matters worse, in several key areas the Labour administration in Bristol has outright refused calls to act: for example, on divesting pensions from fossil fuels, opposing Bristol Airport expansion, scrapping new road building plans, and even simply communicating to its citizens that it has declared Climate Emergency – no written communication has been made. These would all have had a major climate benefit and cost the council nothing at all, yet the administration declined to consider them.

Five months into the pandemic, we have now learnt that plans to go carbon neutral by 2030 face a high risk of failure according to a report to Bristol’s Cabinet in June 2020. This is very concerning. We cannot afford to lurch from a pandemic to a climate emergency. Some form of Green New Deal is essential to help the city and country to ‘build back better’.

Across the UK it’s clear that many of the politicians and organisations that declared a Climate Emergency don’t fully get it. They jumped on the bandwagon, but are not grasping the reins. While some UK local authority Climate Emergency declarations omitted any kind of deadline for carbon neutrality, others talk bold action and then act contrary to their commitments.

There are some shining exceptions, though. Stroud in Gloucestershire was way ahead of the curve – the council is already carbon neutral, and they are much further ahead than most councils in decarbonising the whole district.

What’s different about Stroud? Green councillors have been part of the administration for years; and parties work together, rather than against each other, to achieve positive change.

The conclusion is clear: Greens cannot wait for other parties to carry our cause for us. We must put all of our energy into getting more Greens elected across the country in May 2021.

Carla Denyer is a Green Party councillor in Bristol and the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol West.