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Swansea Council trying to live up to Climate Change Emergency Declaration

DECLARING a climate change emergency is one thing, doing something about it is another.

Swansea Council did the former last June and is identifying measures to give its declaration meaning.

The aim is to agree these measures – on top of its existing environmental initiatives – and draw them all together ahead of signing a new Swansea Charter on Climate Action in the spring.

“It’s a root and branch review of what we do and what we buy,” said council leader Rob Stewart of the work being carried out. “We were very keen it was not just a hollow declaration.”

The charter would confirm the council’s intention to become “net carbon neutral” by 2030.

This means the council would still emit carbon emissions – let’s face it, it’s hard not to – but would try to offset them by planting trees, for example.

The hope is that other organisations and companies will also sign the charter and pledge action.
Of course, councils can’t do everything.

Budgets have been very tight of late, and cost-saving environmental actions – such as replacing street lights with energy-efficient LED versions – have probably been done.

Picking this low-hanging fruit has been replicated on a national scale with the switch from coal-fired electricity to less polluting gas.

Swansea Council is also responding to Welsh Government guidance and legislation by upgrading council houses and making them more energy-efficient, and building more cycle paths. 

The authority can lay claim to initiatives of its own, such as replacing around 45 of its vans with electric versions, installing solar panels on school and community buildings, planting trees, shrubs and grassed areas on The Kingsway and Orchard Street, and developing a new strategy in partnership with Natural Resources Wales requiring more city centre greenery.

The new indoor arena will have “living walls” and a new park alongside, although a cynic feeling particularly picky might point out that thousands of tonnes of concrete and steel will also be required.

Maintaining and enhancing Swansea’s natural resources and biodiversity is now one of the council’s six corporate priorities, which pretty much dovetails with a requirement of the 2016 Environment (Wales) Act.

Of course, funding, to put it mildly, never goes amiss.

Would the council be able to plant 12,500 trees, as it proposes to do this year and next year, without a Welsh Government woodland creation grant?

Would it be able to build highly energy-efficient new council houses without financial support from Cardiff Bay?

Debatable. There are so many competing priorities for money.

But the council has real leverage when it comes to procuring contracts and services, by virtue of its size and buying power.

Martin Nicholls, director of the place department, said the criteria for choosing contractors could be altered to increase the importance of a bid’s quality, which could in turn include environmental credentials.

Councils also have vast piles of money in pension funds. Last year, the City and County of Swansea local Government pension fund switched £500 million of assets – just under a quarter of its total investments – from fossil fuel companies to a low-carbon fund. It was a move which made headlines in the financial press. Further divestment will take place in the coming years.

“We will move as fast as we can,” said Cllr Stewart. “But we can’t put people’s future pensions at risk.”

The public can also play its part in helping the council. Recycling saves taxpayers’ money, apart from anything else, because it costs a lot to bury rubbish in landfill sites.

How about not dropping litter, especially plastic rubbish?

On a slight tangent, do you really need to keep your car engine running while you’re parked up and scrolling through your smartphone?

While we’re at it, and accepting that disability access is required, why do so many shops keep their doors open all day in the winter? You wouldn’t at home, would you?

As a member of the Swansea Bay City Region, the council is helping develop proposals for a Swansea Bay Metro transport scheme, focusing on a better connected rail and bus system.

Cllr Stewart has said he would like the council to run its own bus operation, if the rules allowed.

The city region is also developing the Swansdea Bay tidal lagoon proposition which, if taken forward, would ramp up renewable energy electricity production in the area, especially with a floating solar farm incoporated in the design.

Another city region project is to build 3,300 houses in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire which generate their own power, and to retrofit another 7,000.

Swansea Council’s carbon emissions have decreased by just over 40% in the last 10 years, according to Mr Nicholls, although the council itself has also shrunk to make ends meet.

Planning is another area in which the council has influence.

The council’s new local development plan emphasises that all new development should provide for an attractive and healthy environment. New housing estates should foster a sense of community, with outdoor spaces and reduced reliance on cars.

Declaring a climate emergency won’t mean extra direct funding from the Welsh Government, and how progress is monitored will need careful thought.

When asked about climate emergency funding for councils, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, said: “The work of local councils is absolutely critical to Wales’ collective response to the climate emergency. In our draft budget for next year there are many areas of investment which will be made available to local authorities to help them accelerate climate action.”

These include £64 million to counter flooding, £219 million for sustainable travel schemes, £29 million to help fund greener buses, taxis and private hire vehicles by 2028, and £5 million to develop green infrastructure in cities and towns.

This will be welcome news to environmentalists, which perhaps we all are now.

You probably recycle, and you might want to do other things to help the environment. But what?

The UK Committee on Climate Change – an independent body which advises the UK Government – suggests the following:
– Minimise flying, especially long-haul trips, where possible
– Try to walk, cycle and take the train or bus more
– Insulate your home more, or ask your landlord to
– Set your thermostat no higher than 19C
– Don’t throw food away
– Consider eating less beef, lamb and dairy products
– Chat to others and raise awareness of the issue
– Consider the wider impacts of what you buy and invest in, if you have a pension for example.

It’s a bewildering thought that the fossil fuels which have driven much of the world’s economy for generations are heating it.
Scientists are worried we could reach a point where a warmer planet starts heating itself by releasing vast amounts of locked-in sources of carbon, leaving us with fewer and fewer options. 

But does it really feel like an emergency here in Wales? 

“Go to any school and speak to the children, or to young people entering the workplace, and they absolutely know and accept there has to be massive change,” said Swansea Council Leader Rob Stewart.

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