This year, the South East of England has endured record-breaking 40°C+ summer temperatures, with subsequent fires and floods destroying people's properties, farmland, and forest. However, looking further afield, the UK has had it relatively easy: historic firestorms have raged across the South of France; landmark floods have decimated regions of Pakistan and New Zealand; extreme drought in northern Mexico has left millions of residents without water.
The climate crisis is no longer a distant future threat but is an existential crisis that is upon us today – and yet political responses remain muted. Our government and media acknowledge the events, yet the resolve to address the root causes is absent. Instead, the implicit unsaid message is that we must accept and adapt to the "new normal" without question.
Given the immense scale of the problem, what could two Green Councillors possibly achieve in a Conservative majority town council? Realistically, perhaps not much – but surely more than nothing? The approach taken was to define a solid and politically neutral scientific foundation upon which we might achieve consensus, and the Drawdown project provided this starting point. The stated goal of Drawdown is to 'help the world reach "drawdown" – the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible.' Drawdown publishes research on ~100 solutions that have a material impact on reducing CO2 emissions. In 2019, using Drawdown as a foundation to guide local policy decisions, Haywards Heath Town Council (HHTC) created the ‘Environment Matrix’ and included a statement acknowledging the climate crisis. Following this, in early 2020, HHTC promoted a carbon offset calculator and tree planting initiative with the organisation 'Carbon Footprint'. Then, the Covid pandemic struck, and the town council's attention rightly turned to addressing our community's immediate challenges.
Towards the end of 2021, the focus circled back to our environmental initiatives, including Eco-School and Eco-Business award programs. These awards were to be grounded on Drawdown solutions that could be locally enacted and measured. The most impactful activities any individual or community could undertake are reducing food waste and shifting to a plant-based diet. Hence leading by example, HHTC declared support for Veganuary 2022 and became the first town council in Europe to sign the Plant Based Treaty (PBT) in August this year. Food waste reduction and the transition to a plant-based diet will be cornerstones of the planned voluntary Education and Business Environmental Awards scheme. A rational, a-political, local strategy based on sound science; educating our community on the realities of the situation, what they can do, the climate impact their actions will have and then letting them decide.
That sounds like a reasonable approach, right?
Yet the response from some quarters has been depressingly predictable, verging on the hysterical. Rather than seize the moment and become part of the solution, accelerating the adoption of a sustainable plant-based food system with increased bio-diversity via a just economic transition, lobbying groups chose a different response. Following the playbook crafted by the tobacco and fossil fuels industries, lobbyists seek to protect short-term profit and generous government subsidies at the expense of our children's futures, peddling misinformation, confusion, outrage, division, and fear.
Given the grave situation we collectively face, the surprise is not that HHTC signed PBT – but to date, we are the only town council in Europe to have done so! Climate campaigners are calling on other towns and cities to follow Haywards Heath's lead and help create a national council-led movement calling for a shift towards healthier, more sustainable plant-based diets. A petition calling Glastonbury to endorse the Plant Based Treaty has attracted almost 5,000 signatures. In addition, 20MPs signed Early Day Motion 434, including the Green's Caroline Lucas and Labour's former Shadow Chancellor John McDonell. The motion welcomes the Plant Based Treaty and calls for the UK to be a "world leader in recognising the negative impact of industrial animal agriculture on climate change and commit to developing a global strategy to transition towards more sustainable plant-based food systems."
Animal farming is directly responsible for a third of human-caused methane. Yet our critics are those attempting to defend the indefensible – an abusive food system which promotes human ill-health and accelerates planetary-scale climate collapse. We can no longer wait for governments – we must all act immediately. We need local, national and international cooperation to reduce food-related emissions through a shift to plant-based diets and work to reduce food waste. As Greens, we can and must do much more; we must lead! The UK Green Party currently holds 447 seats on 141 different councils, yet only 39 Green Councillors have signed the Plant Based Treaty. It is time to step up, to be counted and sign the Plant Based Treaty.