By Climate Reporter Elliot Parker
This article was first published on the CovCAN website.
Coventry is a city that has enjoyed an affiliation with industry, innovation and adaptability since the advent of industrialisation. It is the home of the famous ‘black cab’ and nearby are the world-renowned Jaguar Land Rover car manufacturers. Historically speaking, Coventry’s carbon pollution over the years has been colossal given the city’s connection with heavy industry.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that Coventry’s carbonic pollution, much of which occurred before we understood the effects of climate change and the impact of WW2 on the city has shown that the city and its inhabitants are capable of reconciliation and to fight for a better future. Its citizens must grapple with an economic order that seeks to promote environmental degradation through the continual exploitation of fossil fuels and natural resources to keep us warm, clean and fed and pave the way for innovative solutions that achieve the lifestyle we have currently but preserves the natural world for the indefinite future.
Coventry’s geographical location at the centre of the UK could make it a hub for climate debate and action as we move to a more renewable world and humanity adopts a custodian role to protect species, ecosystems and the air we breathe.
By ‘Coventry’, we effectively mean the local Council’s approach and provisions for combatting climate change. This has of course been impacted by Covid-19. Many councils around the UK are strapped for funds or in some instances, dangerously close to insolvency. Covid-19 has put a brake on the council’s proposed response to climate questions, as questions of immediate financial and local economic solvency are put under strain.
The Director of Finance for Coventry City Council has told us:
“There is significant evidence that urban and more deprived local authority areas like Coventry have indeed been disproportionately affected by austerity measures. This is in large part because these authorities tend to rely more on government grant funding and are therefore more susceptible to cuts. Less deprived areas, including many counties, have larger Council Tax bases which can insulate them from cuts in government funding which they are less reliant on.
“Needless to say, this distinction has not been factored into recent additional allocations to help meet the costs of the current pandemic where we are currently not seeing government follow through on their promise that local authorities will be compensated in full for the financial impact of the crisis.”
This could have devastating consequences for the local fight against climate change, within a wider spectrum of disastrous financial consequences upon the nation as a whole, which will inevitably lead to a delay in counter-measures to combat climate degradation.
Moreover, since the UK government’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2019, nothing much has happened. Empty promises for carbon neutrality have been given and Boris Johnson did not attend the climate debates prior to the general election.
Hence, it can be inferred that this government does not consider the ecological crisis to be much of a crisis. In reality we are facing three concurrent crises that could seriously hamper the UK’s ability to ecologically, economically and environmentally recover; these are Covid-19, Brexit and the Climate Crisis.
Is Coventry really “Facing the challenge of climate change”?
We have sought information pertaining to the Council’s response to climate change given the current circumstances, and received a document from Coventry’s Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration, Jim O’Boyle, entitled “Coventry – facing the challenge of climate change and sustainability as an opportunity for future prosperity”.
We have already published this document .
There are various points to be raised and comments to be made about it.
Firstly, it is important to maintain a degree of positivity. The United Nations Association Coventry Branch (UNA Coventry) is grateful for the responses from the Council.
The Climate Crisis is a fundamental issue moving forwards. It will dictate our planetary livelihood over the next century and how we react now determines the vitality of Earth in the future. In short, the Council’s response was welcomed, we believe that they care about the wellbeing of the climate but are restricted by the shackles of an economic system that is still primarily invested in fossil fuels and non-renewables.
Citizens around the UK and the world are still concerned about the lack of action by governments in addressing climate change . Nevertheless, the document wreaks of language clothed in market preservation over environmental preservation, using phrases such as “a great opportunity” and “attracting sponsors”, the Council is seeking to promote the image of the market championing everything else, including common sense.
Most climate activists realise that neoliberalism and the interests of the economy are halting climate progress. This is inevitably causing much more damage to the world’s ecosystems the more we wait for the market to decide to shift to a greener way of life. Companies and polluters must have their hand forced rather than waiting for them to hold out the olive branch. The Council is obviously under a lot of economic strain but even pre-Covid, the plans for shifting to a greener Coventry were cloaked in market interests as opposed to environmental interests at their core.
Moreover, the document mentions nothing at all about public consultation of the council’s climate plan. This area of policy is something that concerns all citizens of Coventry and as a result it should include public debate and be subject to public scrutiny. The time has passed to just hope that sponsors arrive. According to the Coventry Evening Telegraph in January 2020, Coventry has one of the worst air pollution rates of any city in the UK. Coventry’s air pollution was ranked worse than Birmingham and London . Ergo, public involvement is crucial to understand the causes of the air pollution and what action can happen from a council to citizen level at reducing the effects of climate change.
Who will be the Stakeholders of the “Sustainable Development Commission”?
Greater public involvement in the climate debate will instigate a positive reaction from the people of Coventry, which can then be used as an example as to how a city can come together and fight the Climate Crisis. The creation of a ‘Sustainable Development Commission’  without even a mention of public involvement or scrutiny is alarming.
The council might argue that. by inviting “key stakeholders” , it is already engaging the public. It might be therefore appropriate to ask how these people will be selected and what input the wider public will have into their discussions. It might also be asked when this Commission will be set up and whether the public will be invited to become members. What powers will they have? Will their reports be published?
Decisions made in this commission will be central to the environmental and climate future of the city. This commission needs members of the public within it to ensure that overarching interests of climate protection are not substituted for market gains. We need individuals who care about the natural world and its preservation to be chairing such a committee instead of wealthy business owners who are more concerned about short term economic gains over long-term environmental sustainability.
No “Individuals” Allowed on Commission
However, Bret Willers, the new Head of Climate Change and Sustainability at Coventry City Council, has recently told a well-known company director who has worked on climate change both within the city and beyond for many years that “as an individual you are not eligible for involvement in the Commission”.
This is not acceptable. This is not democratic. The city will only be able to take real and effective action on climate change if its citizens change their way of life by reducing waste, recycling, switching to low-carbon forms of transport and so forth. The city needs to engage its citizens in the struggle, and the place to start is when strategies and plans are being laid down.
There must be citizen involvement to ensure the commission is really achieving its goals to “address the major challenges of climate change and loss of biodiversity” and is not merely a vehicle for purposes.
Coupled with this, we need transparency of action between the council, the ‘stakeholders’ and the public to maintain trust and belief that the Council is committed to combating the Climate Crisis.
Positives to be drawn from the “Coventry – facing the challenge” document
UNA Coventry and concerned citizens certainly welcome some of the aims and promises of the Council. The Council’s aim to create more green spaces and encourage biodiversity is positive and a tree planting campaign should back this up, as a fully-grown tree can absorb between 5-7 tons of carbon per year. Globally we would need 500 billion trees to account for emission levels worldwide. If the Council can prevent future development on green spaces and encourage the development of green spaces on vacant land this would go a long way to offsetting local carbon output.
The Council’s plan to raise awareness of sustainability and promoting a shift through the use of culture to a greener city is promising. Using the city’s cultural hotspots, such as the Belgrade and the Herbert Art Gallery to raise awareness of sustainability would be useful in promoting discussion between people about the need for a greener way of life. Moreover, incentives and schemes could be created for local schools could be encouraged by the local council and provided to young children either in schools or at youth centres. UNA Coventry has created a website (www.ecoforum.uk) that will act as a forum for primary schools in the city to work on eco-projects.
Addressing the fuel poverty issue that surrounds the City is of vital importance. Consequently, the Council’s aim of promoting affordable, ecological housing and providing support and more ecological heating systems to poorer households and small businesses would go a long way locally for the fight against climate change. Coventry has one of the highest rates of fuel poverty in the UK as individuals do not have the capital to afford newer, more efficient systems to heat their homes. Many houses still have the older central heating systems that produce a significant amount of greenhouse gases. In April 2019 it was reported that 14% of greenhouse gases produced in the UK come from our homes , with a significant percentage stemming from central heating systems. The cost of switching to low-carbon heating is over £4,000 in a new home and over £26,000 in an existing home .
And yet new homes are still being constructed in Coventry with gas-fired heating. Clearly changing this is a huge task; action must be taken sooner rather than later to mitigate the damage caused by the Climate Crisis.
As to be expected, the document produced by the Council  has some promising aspects but still leaves various things to be desired. As aforementioned this would be greater public scrutiny and involvement at every stage of climate action by the Council. A sign that the council cares more about the ecological health of the planet rather than the economic health of the market would be much appreciated.
Even after we are long gone and pound sterling ceases to be a valid currency, the natural world will still be here, but will humanity? Action must be taken to champion environmental rights over economic rights and it starts with such publications and promises by the council.
This ties in with the greater public involvement, as the people will want to be sure that environmental problems achieve green solutions and not business-oriented solutions that historically have sought to maintain profits whilst ignoring the overarching environmental issues. Some of the council’s proposed actions focused on sustainability and the utilisation of clean energy and green processes is exactly what we need to fight climate change, but as concerned citizens of earth we want to see these words put into action.