Metro mayors: a real chance to think global and act local

aerial view of modern and older houses and bungalows with solar panels on the roofThis post is by Polly Billington, director of UK100, a network of UK cities committed to 100 per cent clean energy by 2050.

The results are in and metro mayors across the land are hitting the ground running. From the West of England to the Tees Valley, new leaders have a massive opportunity to reshape their local economies and improve the health and well-being of their residents. The question is – will they seize it?

Environmentalists urge everyone to think global and act local. The metro mayors have a chance to make that phrase a reality. The size of the city regions they are in charge of mean they can act to tackle climate change on a scale that produces outcomes people can measure and feel right now. Where previously the shift away from fossil fuels has been characterised as expensive, complicated and with little reward by way of votes, local leaders are now seeing immediate benefits in terms of jobs, growth and political popularity.

The picture is pretty clear. Globally, solar and wind are now cost competitive with gas, green industries are experiencing growth of 11 per cent (far ahead of general industry trends), electric vehicles will give us the chance to clean up our cities’ air, higher building standards reduce energy costs for residents and businesses, and better public transport networks can connect people to work with less congestion. You can now have cleaner, healthier, more sustainable cities and save money in the long term. Literally – what’s not to like?

Transformational potential
If we want this vision of the future, the winners of the metro mayoral elections will need to be held to the commitments they have made and then be pressed to go further. Some already clearly understand the transformational potential of policies that will reduce energy costs, promote public health and support new, low carbon industries.

Steve Rotheram in Liverpool has pledged to establish a green energy investment fund to promote the generation and deployment of renewable heat and power. Andy Burnham has a detailed transport plan including a new network of cycle routes, a bike hire scheme, smart ticketing and improvements in bus and train provision. Andy Street in the West Midlands has floated the idea of taxing polluting cars off the road in congested areas. These regions may have ‘city’ in the title, but access to and protection of the surrounding countryside and green space also feature in their plans.

Green Alliance’s research has revealed that the metro mayors are working in very different circumstances from one another and that their environmental challenges vary widely. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough might have lots of cyclists but is still very car dependent. Liverpool has the highest number of deaths linked to air pollution. Tees Valley’s economy is heavily reliant on energy intensive industries. Leadership in shifting these industries away from fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy sources would be a massive win. It would give the city region a competitive edge globally, as well as significantly reducing the UK’s carbon emissions.

Metro mayors can learn from each other
The city regions also have things in common and collaboration between the metro mayors would create the kind of momentum that the transition to clean energy needs. All will be looking to grow their local economy, attract inward investment, create greater resilience and improve the quality of people’s lives by creating a more liveable environment, from reducing congestion to increasing access to green space. Although all will want their plans to be bespoke, some solutions will clearly be transferable. Procuring cleaner buses, sharing insights on financing clean energy schemes, establishing electric car clubs, hanging tough with developers over energy efficiency standards for new homes: mayors can both lead and learn from each other.

It is the importance of collaboration and competition that inspired the establishment of UK100, the network of British cities committed to 100 per cent clean energy by 2050. One of the many local initiatives around the Paris Climate Agreement, there are now 70 cities and local authorities in Britain working towards this goal. Initial calculations, based on the government’s own figures, suggest that meeting those pledges would amount to a cut of ten per cent of the UK’s CO2 emissions. From Southampton to Edinburgh, Swansea to Norwich, local leaders are working together to deliver clean energy and all its benefits for their communities.

And some of the leaders in this network have the chance to influence the new metro mayors. Peterborough Council generates energy and income from its own energy from waste plant, keeping council tax bills low and generating 7.5MW of electricity exported to the grid (the equivalent of 15 per cent of residents’ electricity use), which is sufficient to power over 16,000 homes. Liverpool is proposing a clean air congestion zone encompassing the most polluted areas of the city region. Birmingham’s Energy Capital initiative focuses on attracting investment in smart energy technologies, research and infrastructure. This is just the beginning.

These initiatives and many others can be replicated and scaled across the country at local level, enabling leaders to create the circumstances where a clean energy economy can thrive. Local leaders, particularly directly elected mayors, have a unique role because they think across the whole economy and will want to identify ways to solve more than one problem at a time. It’s easier for them to engage with local people than ministers in Whitehall. They can also establish political consensus and are close to both voters and to business. Proving that, in many ways, the future of climate action is definitely local, as well as global.

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