In the UK, 81 per cent of us accept that we face a climate emergency. But might it be the case that this 81 per cent get the case for electric cars – eventually – but remain at best nonplussed by terms such as ‘retrofit’ and ‘heat pump’? There remains a dangerous void between a generalised belief and widespread appetite for specific changes – a void that is easily filled by greenwash designed to preserve business as usual.
To bridge the void, we need compelling stories about how climate action can have real benefits right now across all areas of our lives. We need to turn a generalised worry into a series of specific demands, driven by popular appetite.
It seems to me that this appetite is beginning to mature when it comes to transport. This is a national story, but a local version might be informative. Shropshire Council has an overwhelming Tory majority. Yet the momentum towards low-traffic neighbourhoods, better options for walking and cycling, and even 20mph area-wide speed limits is, I believe, now unstoppable. The argument is now about the scale of change, how quickly it happens, and consistency.
This is not to diminish the battles ahead: we still face a dreadful road scheme and a poor, unloved bus service, but the terrain has shifted permanently. How did this happen? There’s a combination of local factors: a healthy ecology of dogged transport campaigners; a ‘Big Town Plan’ shaped largely by consultants who have engaged the public with a walking-and-cycling friendly vision; and serendipitous road closures – even before COVID-19, we had a forced but popular period of pedestrianisation, which has been repeated for ‘social distancing’.
Having a Green Party Councillor, with allies, has helped, sometimes in surprising ways; in September, the Tories voted down my amendment for Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods, but by December, staff were quietly bringing forward exactly these schemes. We have lost votes on ‘20’s plenty’ but getting ’20 around schools’ and council officers now openly talk about the benefits of area-wide schemes. The car lobby remains powerful but it feels like we are on the front foot. It is often said that, when it comes to climate change, winning slowly is losing, but it is also true that you can lose battles and still win a war.
How can we grow an appetite for other parts of the agenda such as the decarbonisation of heating? There is no popular demand that developers stop installing gas boilers. Government feels little pressure to bring forward new rules scheduled for 2025. There is no clamour for renewable heat in existing homes. For young people, just getting a home is a struggle. But the pandemic has highlighted the need for improved housing, whilst the opportunity for meaningful work could be a game-changer as we look for a ‘green recovery’. Green Councillor Siriol Hugh Jones has eloquently made the case for a local decarbonisation project in exactly this way. At present there is just one introductory course in retrofitting, but developing this entry point would make a huge amount of sense. As a councillor I have lost the vote – not once, but twice – to ensure new building in Shropshire is zero-carbon ready. But I have got Tory cabinet members to promote that training course, and elsewhere our councillors are working out how to kickstart schemes for local skills development. Perhaps it is time for Green Party councillors to appear in hard hats (once we can get out and about again) alongside retrofit trainees. At the same time, Green Councillors are supporting retrofitting where the appetite is strongest and the economics are already obvious; in oil-fired rural communities and for council tenants.
Local activism, campaigning and celebration of examples can stimulate specific popular appetites which can accelerate change. Local demands will feed up the food chain to Westminster, even by Tory council leaderships. In this year of COP26 we need to promote every possible tasty morsel, making people hungry for more.
Julian Dean is a Green Councillor for Shropshire Council and an elected councillor for Shrewsbury and Atcham Green Party