The climate emergency facing Crawley

A few weeks back the BBC released a new tool, built together with the Met Office, to show some of the likely impacts of climate change across the UK, right down to the 12km² in which we live.

These sorts of interactive tools are useful, because for all the pictures of melting polar ice and forest fires in the New World, a global crisis never seems as real as when you can see the impact from your own doorstep.

Climate change is real, we know what is causing it, we know how to stop it, and we know that while the planet will adapt to any changes humans will not be able to enjoy anything like our current quality of life without rapid action by our species at every level from international bodies down to our day-to-day choices.

We also know that our current pace is nowhere near fast enough, in fact since studying environmental politics as a student, I’ve often suspected that it might already be too late to secure the changes necessary to avoid the loss of (literal) billions of lives.

However, while some climate change is now inevitable, the climate scientists are clear that we still have a narrow opportunity to avoid it reaching catastrophic levels. The problem here isn’t a scientific one, it’s a political one and that is at the root of the Climate Emergency campaign which has secured global political recognition, even if the practice has yet to measure up.

During July last year, Crawley Borough Council passed its own climate emergency motion. It was the last major contribution to the town of my good friend Geraint Thomas before we lost him, yet potentially his most long-lasting. The motion contained a number of specific actions the council had to undertake, ranging from steps which could be undertaken immediately–such as the council modifying it’s Ethical Investment policy (another of Geraint’s contributions) so that no money would be invested in companies involved in the extraction of fossil fuels, to adopting new targets around carbon reduction.

To identify the scale of the local challenge and the roadmap for meeting the targets, the council set up a new cross-party scrutiny panel focused on Climate Change, hired a new sustainability manager, and commissioned research into the level of carbon emissions being produced both by the council on its own and the town as a whole. The Climate Change Scrutiny Panel is due to set out its recommendations shortly, which I would imagine the council will adopt in their entirety.

Despite the time it takes to adequately scope the scale of the problem, the council hasn’t delayed taking action to reduce its emissions. The current Town Hall was built during a time when energy prices were cheap, consequently it is incredibly energy inefficient. The new Town Hall is designed to minimise the need for artificial lighting and air conditioning, with far greater levels of insulation and energy being provided from a new low-carbon combined heat and power facility being constructed on-site. Once complete, this new facility will be capable of providing low-carbon energy across the town centre. Amongst other actions since the motion last year, we have produced a strategy for encouraging more sustainable transport across the town, signed up to deliver electric vehicle charging points across Crawley, run a collective buying scheme for residents seeking to install solar panels on their properties, put tougher environmental standards into the town’s planning requirements for new developments in Crawley, and we are currently talking with neighbouring authorities about how we can collectively refurbish our social housing to substantially increase their energy efficiency. Of course, new properties being brought forward by the council have generally been being built to Passivhaus Standards for the last five years, meaning that the draft-proofing is so effective central heating is almost entirely unnecessary.

From 2013 to 2020, Crawley’s economy grew by 23%, providing the second-highest density of employment in the country. Following COVID-19, Crawley has faced the biggest drop in employment in the country, as the town economy’s strong aviation focus has struggled to survive through current government restrictions. While the social consequences of this are incredibly problematic, it does provide the opportunity for the town to move its economy onto a more environmentally-friendly footing. Since last April I have been talking with experts in green business, regional economic organisations, and even central government to try to encourage the implementation of a Green New Deal for Crawley as part of the economic recovery (completely independently of these efforts, a group has just released a report making essentially the same suggestion: https://www.greennewdealuk.org/updates/a-green-new-deal-for-gatwick/).

While we have yet to see any support for this proposal from central government, locally we are working to make the area more attractive for green business and to deliver improvements with other local partners. We have already successfully lobbied the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise partnership to ensure that a green recovery forms part of the sub-region’s new local industrial strategy, and agreed new principles around collective working to tackle climate change with other members of the Greater Brighton Economic Board. We are also encouraging neighbouring authorities to include the production of liquid hydrogen as part of new renewable energy sites (something we are unable to do due to the limits on space within the borough), due to the immediate opportunity it would provide to remove carbon from the substantial logistics industry within the borough (Metrobus are already looking to move their fleet over to green hydrogen)–an enormous part of the town’s current emissions–and the potential shift of the aviation industry over to hydrogen in time.

Is this enough? No, it’s a start, but the point is this: we are in the midst of a climate emergency and if we are to defeat it, addressing carbon reduction needs to form part of everything we do and I’m not just taking about the council, that principle goes just as much for each and every one of us who live on this planet.

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