Labour councillors in Swansea proposing the motion to declare a climate emergency in the council chamber on 30 June 2019.

Something strange is happening in the UK: Suddenly, almost everyone is talking about the climate change emergency.

Without doubt it is due to the success of the Extinction Rebellion, catalysed by the decision of an incredible 15-year-old, Greta Thunberg (now 16), to go on school strike until somebody took notice. Well, almost the whole world has taken notice.

The main three demands of Extinction Rebellion (known as XR for short) are:

  1. Tell the truth by declaring a climate emergency
  2. Act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 (or 2030 depending on who you listen to)
  3. Set up and abide by the decisions of citizens’ assembly.

Mass occupations, demonstrations and other actions by XR over the last year have catapulted climate change to the forefront. In the UK, virtually every news broadcast makes reference to some aspect of the topic.

As a result, British local councils have been falling over themselves to declare a climate emergency

There’s a map of those hundreds of councils that have declared a climate emergency.

Two weeks ago I was in the Guildhall of Swansea City Council, as it unanimously declared a climate emergency with cross-party consensus. It couldn’t very well not, since the Welsh government itself had already done so.

Then last Thursday I took part in the first ever People’s Assembly in the Welsh government’s Senedd (Welsh for Senate) building itself, where some elected assembly members such as Jenny Rathbone, who had invited us, listened to the demands that had been decided upon by the people’s assembly in the previous two hours.

These included the need for a climate emergency action plan.

Paul Allen, director of Zero Carbon Britain, presenting his approach at the assembly, said, “in all my years of campaigning I’ve never experienced such enthusiasm and energy for change as I am finding now all over the country.”

The UK Parliament itself has also passed a motion declaring climate emergency, following the lead of Scotland and Wales. However, since this was proposed by the opposition Labour party, the Tory-led government is unfortunately not bound to act.

Nevertheless last month it did set a goal of net zero carbon by 2050, although it said that this can be achieved partly by offsetting projects abroad – an escape clause for business as usual.

The goal is supported by over 120 business leaders, a third of whom are members of the UK Green Building Council.

This target was immediately criticised by XR as not being fast enough, despite being one of the toughest targets set by any country in the world.

In the debate among councillors that followed the declaration of a climate emergency in Swansea Council, it was repeatedly stated that since this is an emergency it is necessary to act soon and that this requires a complete change of approach.

Yet it is not in the nature of public administration to act quickly; and so the council has given itself a whole year to come up with an action plan – and faced criticism for not even agreeing to ban next year’s air show, which caused demonstrators to picket this year’s show last weekend.

What to do once a climate emergency has been declared?

It is all very well to declare an emergency, but what an administration does afterwards is far from clear to a lot of elected representatives.

Among the climate activists there is some fear that merely declaring an emergency is potentially a meaningless form of tokenism, and, because it is not their specialism, many of the XR activists themselves don’t necessarily have a systematic solution.

In my own region I am proposing a framework solution that’s been well received so far; it has been accepted as a sensible way forward this week by Swansea’s Rural Development Partnership, and last month by Swansea Environmental Forum and by the Swansea Bay City Region agency 4TheRegion.

When Swansea Council declared a climate emergency I was in the chamber and asked whether they would like to receive a presentation on the framework – the response was positive.

The “one planet” framework

How does it work? Since impacts, good and bad, are a result of every spending decision, it is a system to determine the decisions that contribute the most to the goal of making a region more regenerative and resilient.

It is therefore a framework for evaluating the expenditure that any organisation makes, to factor in the social and environmental consequences of spending decisions as well as the economic ones.

It would operate over a set period of time to adjust the region’s ecological footprint (which includes carbon and biocapacity) to reduce it from the present unsustainable three planets (in the UK) to one planet.

Any spending proposals that do not meet the benchmark of achieving the goal become a liability and so should not be implemented.

Any proposals which achieve good returns on investment for the goal in all three social, environmental and economic areas deserve serious consideration.

The framework process begins with baselining (to find out where you are now), and then deploys capacity-building tools (Net Present Value Plus and Ecological Footprinting) to objectively set goals and make sure you are on the right path.

It does this by encouraging the move to more local supply chains (jobs, regeneration) and a more circular, not linear, economy (as in nature – everything gets reused).

The benefits are “win-win-win” outcomes that contribute to creating a flagship healthy, successful and resilient nation.

If a region doesn’t do this, then, since the world is currently on target for a temperature rise of up to a disastrous five degrees, when the crisis comes and it can no longer import food and other goods from the places it’s used to importing from, it faces disaster.

It’s therefore in everyone’s interests to start now.

In Wales, this approach works within the Foundational Economy, and is in line with the ground-breaking Well-Being of Future Generations Act.

It’s an encouraging start that the idea has been well received wherever it has been suggested, but the effectiveness of any climate emergency declaration will only be as successful as the rigour of the ensuing action plan. Complete system change is the only option.

David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits.

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