Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines “emergency” as “something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results.”
So why have so many local councils declared a Climate Emergency, which amounts to little more than a statement on their website? A Freedom of Information (FOI) request did not get me very far, with my local Liberal Democrat District Council merely saying:
“The Council’s Sustainability and Climate Officer for both North Devon Council and Torridge District Council confirms that they are currently working on a Carbon Action Plan for North Devon, therefore at this time the Council does not have one in place.”
This is the same Liberal Democrat council that declared a Climate Emergency in June 2019. As a councillor since May 2019, I remember the meeting well. I registered my own concerns at the time, and that as a good first step, maybe the air conditioning could be turned down.
Furthermore, our flag-waving Lib Dems have failed to reduce their own carbon emissions, failed to reduce their own energy consumption, failed to provide any incentives for electric cars, and failed to switch any of their fleet vehicles to electric.
I appreciate that our hardworking council officers have been very busy with the pandemic, and the staff have really done a fantastic job, but you would hope that the “Lead Councillor” responsible for the environment could have seen a way to at least install some solar panels.
Emergencies and crises by their very names invoke something of a helplessness in many as it seems to be someone else’s problem. But if we are to address climate change and achieve net zero, there is a need for everyone to feel they can take action now, and not wait for another unhelpful “plan”.
The pandemic taught us the importance of collaboration between local and national government. Devon County Council has also declared a climate emergency, and launched their own plan. But plans need to be actioned if they are to have any effect.
In North Devon, we have already done so much work towards addressing climate change, from increasing electric charging points to introducing the first rural e-scooter trial at our local further education college. However, because these improvements are not in the Liberal Democrat “plan”, they have dropped off the radar of progress.
If we are to encourage individuals that every step they take is important and matters, then we cannot ignore the good steps that people are already making, independent of any local authority “plan”.
There is more we could and should all be doing, and there is no need to wait for further “emergencies” to be declared or “plans” to be published. We can switch to renewables, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, use less electricity at home, recycle more, and all be a part of the solution. We need to share our individual successes so that everyone feels part of the solution.
That is not to say that there is no place for plans. For example, Amber Valley Borough Council has a great plan. We should not let people think they can only make a change if it is part of a plan.
I support Let’s Go Zero and in June wrote with Lord Knight of Weymouth to raise awareness of how tough the pandemic has been for children and for young people. According to NHS Digital, probable mental health disorders nearly doubled after the first lockdown. As we said at the time, the last thing children need is another crisis they feel powerless to change. We must flip the climate emergency into an opportunity for our young people to drive the change to a carbon zero UK.
Time is of the essence, and we need not reinvent the wheel. We should look where solutions currently exist, and work to implement them. UK100 brings together local authorities across the country to devise and, crucially, to implement plans for the transition to clean energy that are ambitious, cost effective, and garner support.
I have spoken at their events and seen how effective their solutions would be. I am a big supporter, and urge others to join. Their Knowledge Hub offers excellent ideas for how local leaders can work to hit net zero, which is available here.
Declaring a “Climate Emergency” suggest that it is someone else’s problem. We need Climate Action, and we must work together in driving this action, rather than waste precious time discussing the misguided and unhelpful Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, something that I regret even my own Conservative county council is doing.
This Conservative Government is a world leader in fighting climate change, and we have introduced the legislative tools to enable and encourage individual leaders and businesses to take action. We as individuals, business leaders, and as councillors need to get on and actually do what we can to make change, rather than producing unhelpful plans that do not in themselves solve the problem.
Selaine is hosting the North Devon Climate Summit on Saturday 18th September, 10am-1pm. Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee, is keynote speaker, with three subsequent panels focusing on “The road to COP26 and where to next”, “The role of education”, and “Blue Carbon”. Secure your ticket now.