Zero Carbon York City Council
by Christian Vassie
9 Mar 2020

Lunchbreak on the Ouse (c) Wikimedia

 Measuring what you want to manage

City councils love measuring stuff. City of York Council prides itself on measuring over 10,000 things. Bean counting was not part of my pre-elected politician existence; the first time I heard a colleague start a sentence with the words 'my favourite performance indicator is …' I wanted to throw myself off the Minster.

Over time I slowly accepted that organisations need data. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. So why is there a strand of data that most city councils have declined or refused to measure, even though without it any claim to be delivering a zero carbon future is weasel flim-flam?

Carbon budgeting is the key to transformation. Councils don't measure carbon because it exposes the gulf between grand pledges and tiny actions.
Politicians are good at manipulating reality to create an impression. We do it to make ourselves look good and to make our opponents look bad. We do it to show we are achieving great things or to prove another party is failing miserably. We do it to show that only we 'can win here'.

Why does this matter when we talk about the climate emergency? It matters because we undersell our weaknesses and oversell our successes. By refusing to quantify the carbon cost or benefit of our activities we can go on pretending we are leading a valiant fight to tackle climate change even though we are doing nothing of the sort.

City of York Council declared a climate emergency eleven months ago and simultaneously declared the commitment to create a zero carbon York by 2030. In all honesty I doubt that even a couple of the forty-seven councillors of all parties had the faintest idea of the scale of the challenge they were taking on. They all signed up because they sort of agreed with the principle and knew that, with local elections coming up, it was important to be seen on the right side of history. As to whether creating a zero carbon York by 2030 was a realistic and achievable goal I don't mean to be rude but I doubt if many of York's politicians gave it a second thought. (It is an almost impossible challenge.)

In York's council election last May I was elected to be the Lib Dem councillor for Wheldrake Ward, a role I previously held between 2003 and 2011, I took the challenge of chairing the city's new Climate Change Policy and Scrutiny Committee.

To create a zero carbon York the council has to transform every area of our activities: from transport to planning, culture to procurement, powering our homes and businesses, land management, water use, waste, our investments in fossil fuels, the way all our shops leave their bloody doors open in the middle of winter … and a lot more.

Many obstacles have been put in front of the committee. Senior officers tried to dictate the remit. No to divestment. No to retraining council staff to ensure they made better decisions. No, biodiversity could not be in the remit, as it has nothing to do with climate change. No, we could not have the ambition of producing a ten-year-plan that all the political parties would sign up to. We spent three months haggling. In the end, with support, from the Lib Dem / Green coalition, the remit went through and we got to work.

It would be too easy to gather politicians around a table to spend a couple of hours once a month blathering about their favourite modes of transport. Someone can talk about village bus services while someone else declares that all cars must be banned. The 'visionary' can drone on about trams while the 'realist' can remind everyone that grand schemes will require slashing adult social care. A happy time will be had by all and nothing will change.

We quickly understood that the elephant-sized void in the room was data. How can you create a zero carbon future if you do not know the total carbon emissions of your city, have no real idea of what a zero carbon future look like, and have no science-based approach to quantify your progress towards delivering on your ambition?

At our second monthly meeting the scrutiny committee received a copy of an executive report detailing the council's energy saving achievements. Twelve projects including installing solar PV, electric vehicle charging points in a car park, a cycle track here, a footpath there, and so on. The most glaring feature of the report was its failure to attribute any carbon cost or benefit to anything; no one has any idea as to the contribution these initiatives make to the challenge we face.

The scrutiny committee's first recommendation to the executive was to appoint a new senior officer with expertise in carbon budgeting, with a supporting team, to turn everything around. I am delighted that the executive has agreed and, if next month's budget council approves, we will soon be on our way.

Combined with the carbon reduction targets produced for York by the Tyndall Centre and the baseline data for York's current carbon emissions, we will at last be able to measure everything we do and know whether we are delivering on our pledge of a Zero Carbon York by 2030.

Like many local authorities York is deeply conflicted; we depend on car parking income to fund services even while we pretend to be trying to deliver a modal shift away from cars. We need new income streams that contribute our climate goals rather than actively fighting them. For me that remains a tram or light rail network but until now that debate has never got off the ground because of the scale of investment that is required (even though there are plenty of successful best practice examples to draw on). I believe that carbon budgeting will transform the debate because it will expose the nuttiness of believing that 3,000 more cyclists equals a decent public transport network. But we will see. At least future debates will be informed by science-based figures.

The climate change committee has parked party politics in our quest to create a ten-year action plan that we can all sign up to. I am proud that Lib Dem, Green and Labour councillors are working constructively together. The Conservatives now want to join the committee and that too is a good thing. The city still needs to find the courage to make the investments that are needed but we will at last stand a chance of delivering a zero carbon future because with a carbon budget methodology we will measuring what we are seeking to manage.

Christian Vassie
15th February 2020

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From GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20

Lunchbreak on the Ouse (c) Wikimedia





Lunchbreak on the Ouse (c) Wikimedia

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