Yesterday evening, 10th June, 2014, I attended the “Manchester, A Certain Future AGM”. MACF is the name for Manchester’s climate change action plan that 5 years ago ambitiously set out to reduce Manchester’s direct greenhouse gas emissions by 41% over the 2005 levels.
This was the first such AGM, more in fact the public presentation of its first Annual Report, available HERE. This is a welcome step as was the frank and honest presentation of the achievements to date. The new chair, Gavin Elliot pulled no punches and the responses to questions from him and the panel of Steering Group members and chairs of working groups was similarly open and non-defensive.
The headline news is that while there have been a number of positive developments, well summarised in the report, the city is falling behind its target emissions reduction. The data are somewhat difficult to interpret, depending in large part on nationally collected statistics and various assumptions, and the annual report does not really explain just how its figures have been derived. But the conclusion is that on present trends, the city would only reduce its emissions by 2020 by 27%, not the 41% it aimed for.
As Kevin Anderson repeatedly points out, it is the cumulative emissions that really matter, the stock of CO2 we put into the atmosphere, rather than the flow at any particular point – in other words, the area under the curve is the critical figure and the sooner we start making the radical emissions necessary, the easier it will be (which is not very easy at all of course!). Taking the data in the report (page 11), we can compare the area under the two trend lines. Over the fifteen years from the 2005 origin point to 2020, the cumulative target reduction was 9,993 kilotons of CO2 equivalent. On present trends the reduction will be just 6,581 kilotons, a shortfall of 34%.
|emissions in year||Cumulative emissions saved|
|% of 2005||100.00%||85.85%||73.00%|
|% of 2005||100.00%||78.46%||59.00%|
Why is Manchester struggling to meet its target? Some reasons are outside its control. So the increased reliance on cheap coal to power the UK’s electricity (in part because of its displacement by unconventional oil and gas in North America) has increased the carbon intensity of the electricity Manchester uses, despite the solar panels on middle class houses like mine, and social housing such as those managed by Northwards Housing and the growth in wind farms off and onshore. In fact per capita, Manchester seems to be doing quite well, since its population has been growing since 2005, which would, despite the increased efficiency of living closer together, meaning more people consuming energy and thereby producing emissions.
But the first ‘elephant in the room’ was the growth in the size of the economy. As we’ve explained many times, nowhere has yet managed to do more than relatively de-carbonise a growing economy, which is to say that despite gains in efficiency, as the economy grows it uses more hydrocarbons and emits more greenhouse gases. As the report points out (page 17) the level of economic growth (as ‘measured’ by Gross Value Added, GVA) aspired to here means that rather than a 41% cut, a 54% cut in emissions (per unit of GVA) will be required to meet the target.
The second elephant is that these data, and the targets and performance they describe, concern direct emissions, and ignore the total emissions that we outsource to things like aviation, shipping, agriculture, deforestation and wetland destruction, oil extraction and refining, elsewhere in the world to support our high consumption lifestyles.
I raised these points in a rather convoluted question, and to be fair, the responses accepted the problem, while noting that there is still the possibility of accelerating impacts from mitigation measures, and that we do need some kind of economic development to address the social problems of the city (which of course we agree with, but we frame this not in terms of growth but in terms of an economy that serves local people without harming the planet).
And as Tony Juniper, the guest speaker of the event pointed out, after 2020, the goal will have to be a 95% decarbonisation of the economy in order to stay within the, just possibly, safe 2 degree global warming limit.
It is looking more and more that this all means putting our economy and our society on something like a ‘war footing’. Think of the way this country responded to the Nazi threat 1939-45 by a massive restructuring of how people lived and worked, of how the economy functioned. Manufacture in Trafford Park, for example, was transformed for armaments production in a matter of months. The Soviets did the same thing, to a greater degree, building a whole new economy east of the Urals, but with authoritarian methods. In neither case, nor in the USA for that matter, was it all left to the market. In the UK, there were two big benefits, despite the huge loss of life, and severe damage to many people’s lives. Firstly there was a transformation of the nation’s diet, with the population probably physically healthier than it has been since. Local and national production of food was a major contributor to this. Secondly there was an upsurge of the practice and values of social solidarity, which in effect became the official policy and ideology. That set the scene for the social democratic welfare state and what now look in many respects like the golden years of my childhood in the 1960s, achievements that have been eroded by our governments since the neoliberal turn of 1979, with the present orgy of austerity being the mould (rather than icing) on the cake.
Manchester, Britain, and the world can make the necessary changes to our economic model now, or wait until the climate crisis, and the other ‘planetary boundary’ crises get so bad that only an authoritarian State will be able to fight a desperate rearguard action. I know which course most of us would prefer, but fear that short termism and the inability to think our way out of the present orthodox economic and social model of globalisation, markets, growth and inequality will make it unlikely that we’ll do this. But that’s what Steady State Manchester continues to work on, along with the MACF coalition that despite the bad news seemed to take renewed inspiration last night.
Mark H Burton
Member of the SSM collective.