Let’s start with the good news
Almost a year after COP26 when the then Prince of Wales, our new King Charles III, encouraged the world to act fast on addressing climate change, the UK last week submitted its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement ahead of COP27 in November. This reaffirms the existing commitment to reduce emissions by at least 68% by 2030 (against a 1990 baseline) and the legally binding 2050 net zero commitment. On 26 September, the Government commenced their three-month review of plans to reach the 2050 net zero emissions commitment. The review will consider the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other global factors affecting the economic context in the UK, with the objective of better understanding which route to net zero may bring the greatest economic benefits. A call for evidence will be launched shortly. However, other Government announcements last week were far more of a mixed bag when it comes to sustainability, with many areas causing concern or even omitted entirely.
Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget was revealed on Friday 23 September with clear emphasis on stimulating economic growth and the focus on the creation of Investment Zones where business taxes and planning rules, including environmental rules, will be relaxed in a bid to encourage investment. 38 upper tier local authorities and combined authorities have been identified as possible locations for the Investment Zones including the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) as well as Staffordshire County Council, Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Warwickshire County Council. Within the WMCA area, discussions are ongoing about introducing investment zones at the HS2 Interchange station site near Birmingham Airport, the NEC campus in Solihull, locations in the Black Country and the site of the proposed gigafactory at Coventry Airport. The combined authority are also intending to submit additional Investment zone proposals including in East Birmingham. The indication that environmental rules may be relaxed gives us deep concerns and has been picked up on by many conservation charities including the National Trust and RSPB. Delia Garrett, Chief Executive at the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust says: “We are deeply concerned about plans to create investment zones across England with proposals to release more land for development and relax planning restrictions. With these plans wildlife is facing one of the greatest threats in decades. Nature is already in trouble and we urgently need a coherent plan for its recovery. Instead, the Government is pursuing a dangerous agenda that puts the very laws protecting wildlife at even greater risk. Environmental protections are not economic burdens hindering growth; our economy depends upon the resources provided by nature – for food production, jobs, materials, health, wellbeing, and so much more. We must reject deregulation and enhance nature protection instead.” Speaking on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg show, the Chancellor insisted that the Government only wished to reduce red tape and said “We’re not going to relax environmental rules”. Urgent clarification on any relaxation of environmental rules would be welcomed.
Many have welcomed the announcement of the Energy Bill Relief Scheme which will provide a discount on wholesale gas and electricity prices for all non-domestic customers (including businesses, charities and the public sector) whose current gas and electricity prices have been significantly inflated in light of global energy prices. Support for measures to fast-track offshore wind development were also announced. However, the Government also lifted the ban on fracking in England, with sites in the East Midlands in North East Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire previously having been granted permission for exploratory drilling. The Government also confirmed its support for a new oil and gas licensing round, expected to be launched in October and to lead to over 100 new licences. The Government’s independent advisor on climate policy and regulation, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), warned against permitting fracking, and said that the ban “should not be lifted without an in-depth independent review of the evidence on the climate impact”. Opportunities to support other types of clean energy, as well as energy efficiency have been missed. Emissions associated with heating and powering our homes are a significant proportion of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we are running out of time if we are to meet our net zero obligations by 2050. Many vulnerable families will still be left with the decision of ‘eat or heat’ and businesses will be concerned about what happens in six months from now.
The Net Zero Economy Index (NZEI) recently published by PwC provides an indicator of the progress G20 members have made in reducing energy-related CO2 emissions and decarbonising their economies, and it is scary reading. The report concludes that to limit warming to 1.5C we now need decarbonisation at an annual rate of 15.2% when globally we achieved only 0.5% in 2021 – the lowest level in a decade. More positively, the report highlights the strength of cross-sector initiatives which continue to increase business and investment action, with more than 3,000 businesses and financial institutions now working with the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to reduce their emissions by setting science-based targets. However, according to ‘ecoact’, only 36% of the FTSE 100 has set a SBT for Scope 3 emissions reductions which usually represent most of an organisation’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
How can SWM help?
What we’d like to have seen last week was a carefully designed strategy that provides immediate relief for the most vulnerable families and businesses, sustained investment in a nationwide retrofitting programme to make millions of homes more energy efficient, and acceleration of cheaper, greener energy sources including solar which can be deployed much more quickly. Investment in these areas would future-proof our energy system, help towards tackling the climate crisis and create new green jobs in the process. With the lack of focus on sustainable investment in the announcements last week, the responsibility sits with us all to take the lead and keep ambitions of 1.5C alive. In the West Midlands, support is available to any organisation through the West Midlands Net Zero Business Pledge. With almost 80 organisations having already made their pledge, this is a simple means of showing your commitment and most importantly, getting support on your journey to net zero. On Friday 30 September you can join our free webinar from 11:00 – 12:15 to find out more about the support available, and hear from pledged businesses Shoosmiths LLP and Wylde Connections, as we as Andrew Smith, Lead Research Environment and Sustainability at Crown Commercial Service who will discuss net zero in procurement. Our region is recognised for its strengths in clean technology and it is the very reason why the region has been awarded funding through the Government’s Innovation Accelerators. Yes, the £30 million coming our way is a drop in the ocean compared to the investment needed to meet net zero. However, if used effectively and wisely, it will provide huge stimulus to emerging technology in this field, and drive additional investment from the wider public and private sector. Our work on retrofit has grown considerably over the past couple of years, working with members the Sustainable Housing Partnership and Contented, and we hope this support to local authorities and their supply chains will allow them to move forward with retrofit programmes more effectively. And finally, we firmly believe that action on net zero must go hand in hand with improving our resilience and adapting to better prepare for the impacts of climate change. This year we’ve seen only to clearly the devastating impact more extreme weather events like heatwaves and storms can bring. Sustainability West Midlands and the Environment Agency produced the first ever West Midlands Climate Change Adaptation Plan in November 2021. Local authorities can join us at our webinar on 03 November from 09:30 – 12:30 where councils from across England will be speaking about projects demonstrating what adaptation looks like in practice, and how working in partnership, utilisation of funding and integration with other council priorities can help get projects off the ground despite these logistical constraints. The Net Zero Economy Index stresses that collaborative action is critical for success which is at the core of everything we do. Having been established for 20 years in the region, we’ve seen many sweeping changes in sustainability-related policy, and felt the very real challenges this brings to those who know that, quite simply, operating sustainably isn’t a nice-to-have, it just means doing business well. We’ve seen the groundswell in interest in sustainability over the last three years and we firmly believe that our members and wider stakeholders will keep building on this success, and making positive change. If you would like support with your approach to sustainability, to find out more about any of these initiatives, or just a conversation on the current situation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07751 930625. Anna Bright, Chief Executive