Leading the way on the climate emergency

By Dan Peters | 02 February 2021

The recent arrival of Storm Christoph led to the River Calder bursting its banks and flooding roads.

It was the latest chapter in a long history of flooding for the West Yorkshire region.

When the frequent floods come they arrive without much warning and there is a real risk to life.

This means that when the West Yorkshire Combined Authority and many of its council partners became among the first to declare a climate emergency in summer 2019 they were responding to something that felt very real indeed.

‘We’ve known about the environmental challenges that we face for a very long time but I think it has only been in the last couple of years that it’s really got onto the radar,’ says director of policy, strategy and communications at the combined authority Alan Reiss.

‘It was through the course of 2019 that this really caught on. The level of attention that’s been given to it has certainly increased exponentially in the last two years.

‘The region has had some very severe flood events over the last few years and we argue that’s as a result of climate change. I think it made it very real for people.’

January’s events have again proved that the region is on the frontline of the climate emergency and things would have been worse if the combined authority and its partners had not recently invested £1.7m in natural flood management projects across Calderdale and Kirklees. This investment is expected to protect around 3,000 homes and more than 1,000 businesses, with the University of Leeds monitoring the work and its outcomes so successes can be replicated elsewhere in the UK.

‘We want to share our learning with others,’ says Mr Reiss.

‘This is going to be a long haul. We need to capture the imagination of the next generation. We need to harness that.’

It was more than the combined authority’s response to flooding that meant it won the Leadership in Responding to the Climate Emergency category at The MJ Awards last year.

The Leeds city region energy strategy and delivery plan aims to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, with an ambitious target to become net-zero by 2038 at the latest. This would make it one of the UK’s first net-zero carbon city regions.

West Yorkshire’s submission to the award – which was sponsored by Local Partnerships – admitted this would be difficult but the region remains committed to the ambitious target despite coronavirus, which senior officers fear will lead to more people getting back in their cars instead of returning to public transport.

Chair of the combined authority, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, said: ‘There is no denying this [climate emergency] is one of the greatest challenges we face, especially against the backdrop of an unpredictable global pandemic. But we must face this head on and not shy away from the difficult decisions that will need to be taken.’

The awards submission read: ‘The scale of the challenge is huge. To meet its 2038 target and comply with the Paris agreement the city region needs to reduce annual carbon emissions by 14.5% year on year and halve emissions every five years, with significant savings required over the next 10 years to 2030.’

One of the key ways the combined authority is rising to the challenge is by making sure all decisions it makes consider the impact on clean growth and climate change.

The authority and local enterprise partnership have also launched the Leeds city region climate coalition to bring together politicians, businesses, campaigners and communities as part of their commitment to tackle the other global emergency.

‘Our leaders recognise that we do not currently have all the laws to make this happen,’ says Mr Reiss.

‘There needs to be a change in government to make sure regions have the investment to do this work.’

Mr Reiss also stresses the need to change the historic perception that tackling the climate emergency is ‘elitist,’ pointing out that environmental projects benefit everyone.

For example, a plan to install 88 ultra-low emission vehicle charging points for taxis and cars will reduce carbon emissions from transport and help improve air quality.

A £69m investment on cycling and walking improvements has already reported having a positive impact while the installation of energy efficiency measures and new heating systems in more than 4,000 homes will help reduce bills and cut fuel poverty.

And it’s not just awards that the region has to show for its efforts.

Since 2005 there has been an overall 38% reduction in carbon emissions in West Yorkshire, compared to 27% nationally.

Now that’s what you call leading the way.

Are you or your authority taking leadership in responding to the climate emergency? Is your council excelling in other areas? The MJ Achievement Awards 2021 are now open. For details, go to awards.themj.co.uk

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