Bristol's climate emergency: Three years on

Co-leader Cllr Carla Denyer and Cllr Lily Fitzgibbon review the city’s progress on climate action, a reflection that conjures ‘a mixture of pride and frustration’ for the pair.

Bristol suspension bridge at night
Bristol suspension bridge at night
Carla Denyer and Lily Fitzgibbon

This article originally appeared on the Bristol Green Party blog, on 16 November 2021.

This month marks three years since Bristol City Council voted unanimously to support Green Councillor Carla Denyer’s motion declaring a Climate Emergency, committing the city to go carbon neutral by 2030 in November 2018.

Commenting on the progress made, Cllr Denyer, who is now also Co-Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, said, “I look back on the years since with a mixture of pride and frustration. I am proud that the Green Party councillors led Bristol to make the first Climate Emergency declaration in Europe, and kick-started a wave of similar declarations across at least three-quarters of the UK’s local authorities, as well as many other governments and organisations.

“Many of these declarations were accompanied by ambitious new carbon reduction targets, making a substantial contribution to tackling the climate crisis.

“However, I also feel frustration, and sometimes even despair. Because three years later, not enough has changed. Bristol, the UK and other countries across the world have commissioned reports and made positive noises, but ultimately changed very little.”

Following the declaration, the One City Environment Board was set up in July 2019 to “lead the development of a Climate Strategy for Bristol”. In October 2020, they published a Council Climate Emergency Action Plan, which has been criticised by Green Councillors for lacking concrete actions.

Other steps taken across the city include the introduction of a Clean Air Zone (CAZ) in 2022 and proposed updates to the Local Plan to require new developments to be zero carbon. However, the CAZ, which will affect one in four drivers, is focused on reducing Nitrogen Dioxide emissions, not car journeys or carbon, so is unlikely to reshape transport patterns or carbon emissions substantially. And the update to the local plan, proposed in a motion brought by Greens in September, may not be in place until 2024.

“Acknowledging that we’re in an emergency means that we need to act like it – things need to change, urgently”

As well as this, the current administration has refused calls to oppose the proposed expansion of Bristol airport, and have yet to divest millions of pounds in council pensions from fossil fuel investments. They also voted against a £10m retrofit Green capital budget amendment two years ago, and attacked a recent Green motion for a Workplace Parking Levy, even though it was a measure proposed in the One City climate strategy.

Cllr Denyer continues, “I do not get the sense that the politicians from the other parties – who were happy to jump aboard the Climate Emergency bandwagon, have properly grasped that acknowledging that we’re in an emergency means that we need to act like it – things need to change, urgently. We’ve seen this at both an international level, with COP, and locally here in Bristol. But as US environmentalist Bill McKibben has said, ‘winning slowly is the same as losing'."

“It’s time for the other parties to get with the programme or get out of the way.”

Councillor Lily Fitzgibbon, who job shares Bristol Green Group’s Shadow Cabinet role for Climate and Ecology with Cllr Denyer, said: “It’s amazing to see how far Climate Emergency declarations have come over the last three years – from every level of government and every kind of organisation we are seeing a real awareness of the severity of the situation. But awareness isn’t action, and we need to see concrete changes in the city to reach our net-zero target.

She added: “Polling consistently shows that the public want strong climate action and support green policies. It’s time for the other parties to get with the programme or get out of the way."