Tackling the climate and ecological crisis in Liverpool city region

Mark Boyle

By Mark Boyle, on November 28th, 2019

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NEW: A report on the climate and ecological crisis in Liverpool City Region

Few would disagree that not only was 2019 the year when Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg rose to international fame with her ‘school strike for climate’, it was also the year when city leaders came to appreciate more keenly the full extent of the climate and ecological emergency.

But declarations of intent and tougher targets do not themselves bring about change. New plans must be drawn up to deliver solutions. What needs to happen next?

As elsewhere, the protest group Extinction Rebellion has been active in Liverpool City Region (LCR) (UK) staging ‘school strikes for climate’ and ‘lie down protests’ in public spaces and outside landmark buildings. In May 2019, following a meeting with local climate strike protestors, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) Metro-Mayor and Labour Party representative Steve Rotheram declared a ‘climate emergency’. “Climate change” he announced, “is the biggest threat we face globally and we will do everything in our power to make a difference at a local level.” The Metro-Mayor has set his sights LCR becoming net zero-carbon by 2040, ten years before the UK (and the likely EU) target of 2050.

This 2040 target will prove difficult to meet: a momentous challenge presents.

Published as a contribution to Liverpool City Region’s Year of the Environment 2019 Summit held on November 8th 2019, a recent report by the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool titled ‘Towards a green Future for Liverpool City Region’ contributes to the search for effective remediating actions.

Our report argues that Liverpool City Region can learn from EU cities.

We cite examples of good practice championed by: the EU Urban Agenda Partnership on Air Quality’s Code of Practice for Air Quality Plans, Urban Innovative Actions (DIAMS and Super circular estate), URBACT III Good Practice cities and Action, Implementation and Transfer Networks (especially Agri-Urban and Biocanteens, Tropa Verde, Second Chance Recovery and Repair) and EU H2020 projects Urban GreenUP and Prospect (P2P)

But we also ask; what can EU cities learn from Liverpool City Region?

What are the challenges facing Liverpool City Region?

Liverpool grew as a port city serving both British imperial expansion and the UK industrial revolution. Like in many rustbelt port cities, the collapse of empire and deindustrialisation led to a spiral of decline. Throughout the twentieth century the city struggled to reinvent itself and has been described as the classic ‘left behind place’. Communities in LCR continue to rank poorly in national multiple deprivation league tables. But today LCR is turning the corner and is once again enjoying a renaissance. LCR will continue to grow between now and 2040 – to a limited extent in terms of population, to some extent in terms of employment, and to a large extent in terms of GVA; the economy will be a third larger again by 2040.

But at the same time LCR wishes to complete its successful regeneration programme, it is also aspiring to become the greenest city region in the UK. How might LCR complete is economic recovery whilst reducing its ecological footprint?

Growth of the LCR economy is not expected to be slowed to any great extent by global warming, if anything, it might be boosted. But LCR will be impacted by the increased frequency of extreme weather events, especially flooding. Aside from ethics and the need to attend to global climate justice, an unstable Global South is liable to rebound on cities in the Global North – for example by 2050 there could be nearly 150 million climate change refugees driven from Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia. Moreover ecologists note that LCR is witnessing biodiversity loss and a decline in the abundance and occupancy of species including IUCN Red List and Priority species. Meanwhile pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulphur dioxide (SO2) are impairing air quality in LCR causing, 700 deaths every year. And as the LCR economy has recovered so too waste streams from industry, commercial, construction and demolition, municipal, household, and agricultural sources have grown. There has yet to emerge a substantial circular economy; only 45% of municipal waste is recycled.

What is being done in Liverpool City Region?

LCRCA and LCR local authorities recognise that they cannot solve the climate and ecological emergency by themselves; not least given the extent to which looming threats impinge upon a broad range of policy areas including the environment, economic development and regeneration, health, transport, housing, social care, policing and education. ‘Better together’ is the Metro-Mayor’s slogan and he has sought to build partnerships and to offer encouragement to local anchor institutions from the public, private and third sectors who have set net zero-carbon targets by or before 2040.

But, there is recognition that there needs to be enhanced governance capacity if LCR is to drive forward a strategic and joined-up local response. In 2019, LCRCA convened a ‘Year of the Environment’, which has seen more than 10,000 people take part in more than 500 events and activities across the City Region. There has followed a vibrant local conversation to establish a vision of what ‘good’ looks like – what would be the hallmarks of the greenest city region in the UK – and a media and public education campaign has kept this vision active and alive in the public square. Based upon this local conversation, in November 2019 the Metro-Mayor established a Climate Partnership to co-ordinate the City Region’s response to the climate emergency and bring together all relevant LCR stakeholders including: LCRCA, LCR local authorities, LCR Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), anchor public institutions, LCR businesses, social enterprise and third sector actors, and concerned communities and citizens.

At the heart of local solutions is the mission to decarbonise LCR. LCRCAs has placed ‘clean growth’ at the centre of its new Local Industrial Strategy (LIS) and has identified ‘clean technology’ as one of the city’s critical ‘sector accelerators’.

Clean growth is to be delivered by harnessing unique local assets and advantages.

The River Mersey running through LCR has the second highest tidal range in the UK and LCRCA plans to build Europe’s largest tidal barrage project by 2030 supplying enough power heat 1 million homes. LCR has also been designated as one of six UK Centres for Offshore Renewable Engineering (CORE) and plans to triple the volume of energy generated by offshore wind in Liverpool Bay by 2032. It also has unique research and technology expertise in hydrogen power. It has an ambition to replace all methane with hydrogen from the City Region’s gas grid by 2035 and in 2020 will introduce to the public transport system 17 new hydrogen buses emitting nothing more than water vapour. The city’s pioneering new Knowledge Quarter and local universities have joined forces to birth the LCR Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory (LCEI) and the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation (CGE) to help local SMEs shift towards low-carbon energy. A Mersey Forest Plan has recently been expanded to include an ambitious proposal to create a ‘Northern Forest’ joining Liverpool, Chester, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull by planting 50 million new trees – among other ‘nature based benefits’, the ‘Northern Forest’ will constitute a national carbon offsetting resource. LCRCA has also invested in the first phase of a £16m 600km Greenways cycling and walking network. A ‘Brownfield First’ approach to development has witnessed a re-greening of industrial wasteland. Given its social and political history, climate justice features centrally in LCRs response. LCR has an exceptional base of social enterprises and LCRCA has established a £5 million fund to support the local social economy deliver for poorer communities, including to enable these communities to adapt to climate change. Meanwhile, the Royal Town Planning Institute is working with the LCRCA on a national pilot project to develop a climate resilience policy: this will be incorporated into the City Region’s Spatial Development Strategy and seeks to protect in particular vulnerable coastal communities.

But there remains much work to do.

The new Climate Partnership will need to be inclusive of all stakeholders and to function well and demonstrate its efficacy. Affordable finance at scale will be required to invest in tidal, offshore wind and hydrogen power infrastructure, Air quality remains a significant public health issue and the LCRCA Clean Air Taskforce and ‘interim air quality plan’ and Liverpool City Council new ‘Clean Air Plan’ are only at an early stage in their development and implementation. To support the circular economy, there is an urgent need to change local business models and resource streams and to ensure that the wider benefits of the circular economy are being harvested, including its contribution to crime reduction, food poverty, skills training, loneliness, and mental ill health. Renovation and retrofitting of the city’s housing stock remains a work on progress and LCR has among the least energy efficient housing stock in the UK; the city awaits news of a £230m Green City Deal bid to national government focusing on improving household energy consumption. And a Civic Data Trust is badly needed to ensure climate and ecological data is shared better and exploited by a new generation of climate services without compromising public trust.

An election like no other: Brexit and the crisis in UK politics

The UK will go to the polls on December the 12th in what has been described as one of the most important parliamentary elections in the country’s history. The stakes could not be higher.

The capacity of LCR to remediate the climate and ecological emergency will depend upon the political dispensation that emerges from the present political crisis in the UK and whether existing policy agendas continue to apply or a new political agenda rises to meet the challenge.

Amidst fears that Brexit could lead to a bonfire of EU law and open the door to environmental deregulation, the UK Conservative party has committed to a ‘Green Brexit’, retaining and even strengthening current EU environmental directives, regulations, and targets. In 2018 the Government published ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ and later in 2019 intends to finalise a new ‘Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill’. It has launched a Clean Growth Strategy to help it meet its net-zero greenhouse gas target by 2050. Its main tools are fiscal levers to discipline and incentivise the market to ‘go green’.

Other commentators argue that the ‘status quo’ and ‘business as usual’ will no longer do. Greening capitalism risks greenwashing capitalism.

There has arisen much discussion concerning the concept of a Green New Deal – a new government led social compact in the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal – to transition politics, economy and society in favour of models sustainable development. Opposition parties have tabled plans for a Green New Deal, most recently with the UK Labour and Green party sponsored Private Members Bill ‘The Decarbonisation and Economic Strategy Bill’.

Our Heseltine Institute report argues that to tackle the climate and ecological crisis effectively, there needs to be a deeper systemic reform to the prevailing political-economic model – in the form of a UK social contract for sustainability and a just transition – in which devolution and empowered city-regions must play a central role. Whilst the innovative policies which LCR is pursuing can to varying degrees, be undertaken within the existing political-economic model, our provocation is that their capacity to be enacted and their impact would be greatly enhanced if they were supported by such a new contract.

This blog derives from an Issues Paper prepared by the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool as a contribution to the ‘2019 Year of the Environment Liverpool City-Region’, and in particular to the Year of Environment LCR Environmental Summit held in November 2019. A summary paper and a full paper can be downloaded from the Heseltine Institute website.

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