Year of the Environment: Towards a green future for LCR

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Professor Mark Boyle is Director of the University of Liverpool's Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place. He presented the Heseltine's proposals for a green future for the Liverpool City Region at the LCR's Environmental Summit.

1.2019: The year when world leaders woke up to the climate and ecological emergency

‘No one’, sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg insists, ‘is too small to make a difference’. Few would disagree that not only was 2019 the year when Greta Thunberg rose to international fame, it was also the year when world leaders (with some note-able exceptions) came to appreciate more keenly the full extent of the climate and ecological emergency.

There has followed a rush by governments and regional and city authorities to declare a climate and ecological emergency. But declarations and tougher targets do not themselves bring about change. New plans must be drawn up to deliver solutions. So what needs to happen next?

In May 2019, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) Metro-Mayor Steve Rotheram declared a ‘climate emergency’. The Metro-Mayor has set his sights on Liverpool City Region becoming net zero-carbon by 2040, ten years before the UK target of 2050; constituent local authorities and anchor institutions from the public, private and third sectors have likewise set net zero-carbon targets by or before 2040.

This 2040 target is necessary and is to be welcomed but it will undoubtedly prove difficult to meet.

Liverpool grew as a port city serving both British imperial expansion and the UK industrial revolution. Like many rustbelt port cities, the collapse of empire and deindustrialisation led to a spiral of decline. Throughout the twentieth century the city struggled to reinvent itself and has been described as the classic ‘left behind place’. But today Liverpool City Region (LCR) has turned the corner and is once again on the up. LCR is amidst a remarkable renaissance. From the mid-1990s it has enjoyed sustained urban regeneration.  Liverpool will continue to grow as a city between now and 2040 – to a limited extent in terms of population, to some extent in terms of employment, and to a large extent in terms of GVA. At the same time it is aspiring to become the greenest city in the UK.

A challenge thus presents.

How might LCR grow the local economy whilst reducing its ecological footprint? 

Table Headline historic and projected growth rates, LCR and the UK

Indicator Liverpool City Region UK
2018 Growth (2003-18) Growth (2018-40) 2018 Growth (2003-18) Growth (2018-40)
Population 1,552,000 4% 1% 66,436,000 11% 7%
Employment 713,000 10% 5% 35,081,000 14% 7%
GVA £32bn 14% 30% £1,803bln 28% 37%

(Source: LCRCA 2019)

This challenge is historical and there are no easy solutions. The City Region will need to have a mature conversation to pick a way through the series of tough choices which lie ahead. Published as a contribution to Liverpool City Region’s (LCR) Year of the Environment 2019 Summit, a recent report by the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool titled ‘Towards a green Future for Liverpool City Region’ seeks to contribute to this conversation.

We ask:

What are the challenges?

What is the UK doing to tackle the crisis and is it enough?

What is being done in Liverpool City Region?

How can we scale and accelerate our efforts?

Today, I will briefly speak to the challenges facing LCR, remediating actions taking place in LCR, and the importance of a supportive national government

2.What are the challenges

Today, human interference in the natural environment has grown to the extent that we have breached some, and risk breaching further, crucial life-sustaining planetary boundaries. A global climate and ecological emergency has been the result.

Global Warming According to the IPCC, with Climate Change the mean surface temperature of the earth is now 1ºC higher than in the pre-industrial era. Rises above 1.5ºC from preindustrial temperatures and especially rises above 2ºC constitute ‘dangerous human interference’ in the global climate system. Driven by an ever-growing carbon-fuelled economy (oil, natural gas and coal), the world is on track to exceed the 1.5ºC threshold by the year 2030.

Growth of the LCR economy is not expected to be slowed to any great extent by global warming. But it will be impacted by the increased frequency of extreme weather events, especially flooding, And its emissions are contributing to the immiserating by the Global North of the Global South through sea-level rise, desertification, wildfires, water shortage, crop failure, extreme weather, disease, climate refugees and increased risk of wars and conflicts. Aside from ethics and the need to attend to global climate justice,  an unstable Global South is liable to rebound on cities in the Global North.

Biodiversity Loss Globally, there is much discussion that we are now living through a sixth mass extinction event, the first to be caused by human actions. According to the 2019 State of Nature report, the UK and LCR is witnessing a decline in the abundance and occupancy of species including IUCN Red List and Priority species.

Poor air quality Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that ambient air pollution causes in excess of 3 million deaths per year and constitutes the world’s most series public . Pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulphur dioxide (SO2) are impairing air quality in LCR causing, 700 deaths in the City Region every year.

Waste according to the World Bank without urgent action, global waste will increase by 70% on current levels by 2050. Plastic wastes (constituting 12% of all solid waste) are especially damaging; if not managed effectively, they have the potential to contaminate oceans, waterways and ecosystems for hundreds of years. Since 1996, the growth of LCR economy has increased waste streams from industry, commercial, construction and demolition, municipal, household, and agricultural sources.  There has yet to emerge a substantial circular economy; only 45% of municipal waste is recycled.

  1. What is being done in Liverpool City Region?

Local political leaders are acting swiftly to address climate and ecological challenges, and many innovative practices are emerging.

As noted, in May 2019, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (LCRCA) Metro-Mayor Steve Rotheram declared a ‘climate emergency’. The Metro-Mayor has set his sights on Liverpool City Region becoming net zero-carbon by 2040, ten years before the UK target of 2050; constituent local authorities and anchor institutions from the public, private and third sectors have likewise set net zero-carbon targets by or before 2040.

At the heart of the local response is the mission to decarbonise LCR. LCRCAs has placed ‘clean growth’ at the centre of its new Local Industrial Strategy (LIS) and has identified ‘clean technology’ as one of the city’s critical ‘sector accelerators’. Today, the Metro-Mayor has established a Climate Partnership to co-ordinate the City Region’s response to the climate emergency and bring together all organisations that want to play their part in achieving the goal of net zero-carbon by 2040 or sooner.

There is reason to be optimist.

LCR has been designated as one of six UK Centres for Offshore Renewable Engineering (CORE). Businesses locating in the LCR CORE benefit from; Enterprise Zone status, enhanced capital allowances, world renowned engineering capabilities, one of the largest construction halls in Europe, a streamlined planning processes, an extensive supply chain of companies which are already operating in the offshore wind sector and an array of companies with the capabilities to diversify into the sector. LCR has a commitment to triple the volume of energy generated by offshore wind in Liverpool Bay by 2032.

The River Mersey has the second highest tidal range in the UK, varying from 4m at neaps to 10m at spring tides. LCR plans to build Europe’s largest tidal barrage project by 2030 and has established the Mersey Tidal Commission to scope the project. A Mersey Tidal Barrage could supply 2-5TWh of energy into the grid by the early 2030s (enough to power 1 million homes) at a capital cost of £3.5 billion.

LCR has developed specialist expertise in hydrogen power. It participates in HyNet North West, an innovative hydrogen energy and Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) project. It has an ambition to replace all methane with hydrogen from the City-Region’s gas grid by 2035. It plans to deliver a network of at least eight zero-carbon refuelling stations (hydrogen and electric charging) across the city-region by 2025. Meanwhile, Alstom’s Widnes Technology Centre is home to the design, build and testing of hydrogen trains. The City Region will have 25 zero-emission hydrogen buses (LCR Hydrogen Bus) in operation in 2020.

Local universities have joined forces to birth the LCR Low Carbon Eco-Innovatory (LCEI) and the Centre for Global Eco-Innovation (CGE) to help UK and local SMEs to shift towards low-carbon power. To date, the CGE and LCEI have collaborated with over 500 SMEs, with the CGE programme creating over 300 jobs and adding £45 million gross GVA to the local low-carbon economy. Recently, the LCRCA has built upon these initiatives and launched a £10m Green Investment Fund designed to help local SMEs improve energy efficiency.

A number of projects have also embraced Nature Based Solutions. A Mersey Forest Plan has recently been expanded to include an ambitious proposal to create a ‘Northern Forest’ joining Liverpool, Chester, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull by planting 50 million new trees – among other benefits, the ‘Northern Forest’ will constitute a national carbon offsetting resource.

LCR has also established a local chapter off the Circular Economy Club and is using a Community Fund to ensure that the wider benefits of the circular economy are being harvested, including its contribution to crime reduction, food poverty, skills training, loneliness, and mental ill health.  LCRCA has also invested in the first phase of a £16m 600km Greenways cycling and walking network. It has used a £172m Transforming Cities fund to increase low carbon public transport and increase walking and cycling.

A ‘Brownfield First’ approach to development has witnessed a re-greening of industrial wasteland.

LCRCA has also established a Clean Air Taskforce and produced an ‘interim air quality plan’. Meanwhile Liverpool City Council is preparing a new 'Clean Air Plan' and established new public facing web site ‘Lets CLEAR the AIR Liverpool’.

Clean Public Transport lies at the heart of these plans. LCR has invested £460m investment in new, state-of-the-art trains for the Merseyrail network to improve and futureproof green public transport. It aspires to have the UK’s cleanest bus fleet outside of London, with 70% of buses already classified as emitting low emission.

Of course even if net zero is achieved globally, climate will continue to warm in the short-term, and sea level will continue to rise for centuries. Adaptation measures will be necessary.  The Royal Town Planning Institute is working with the LCRA to develop a climate resilience policy that will be incorporated into the City Region’s Spatial Development Strategy to push up standards and safeguard against flooding and extreme weather events alongside other climate threats.  This policy is referencing poverty and natural capital as well as economic assets in its attempt to identify which communities and land use merit priority defence.

But of course there is still much to do:

  • Scaling hydrogen power capacity will prove to be costly and technically challenging.
  • If it is to be built, the Mersey Tidal Barrage will need to secure financial and political support from national government – hitherto unseen.
  • Renovation and retrofitting of the city’s housing stock remains a work on progress (Liverpool City Council has submitted a £230m Green City Deal bid to national government focusing on household energy consumption).
  • There remains scope to improve public transport, and especially the rail network.
  • LCR has work to do to assist the UK to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi targets.
  • To realise its full circular economy potential, LCR will need to focus upon changing local business models and practices.

  1. How can we scale and accelerate our efforts?

Cities need to be supported by their governments if they are going to achieve their objectives. The capacity of the LCR to remediate the climate and ecological emergency will depend upon the political dispensation that emerges from the present political crisis in the UK and whether existing policy agendas continue to apply or a new political agenda rises to meet the challenge.

Amidst fears that Brexit could lead to a bonfire of EU law and open the door to environmental deregulation, the UK Conservative party has committed to a ‘Green Brexit’, retaining and even strengthening current EU environmental directives, regulations, and targets. In 2018 the Government published ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment' and later in 2019 intends to finalise a new ‘Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill’.  It has launched a Clean Growth Strategy to help it meet its net-zero greenhouse gas target by 2050.

Whilst proactive, the UK Government continues to view the market as the primary driver of a green transition towards clean growth. In this it is not alone. For those who base solutions on market reform, carbon pricing (taxes, caps and trades, feebates and regulations), subsidies and offsetting provide the main policy tools. This agenda invites debate on whether a transformed and reregulated market alone will be able to remediate environmental damage for which it itself carries significant culpability, The challenges are complex and largescale. They are also dogged by persistent market failure and social injustices. Is it prudent to suppose or assume that the market as currently ordered is up to the job?

Other commentators argue that ‘status quo’ will no longer do and to suppose that the present emergency will be solved through technical adjustments to present policy agendas is to fundamentally misconstrue the enormity, urgency and intractability of the problem. A new paradigm is needed, deeper structural reform and systemic change will be required.

It is against this backdrop that there has arisen much discussion recently concerning the concept of a Green New Deal – a new government led social compact in the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal - to transition politics, economy and society in favour of models sustainable development. Opposition parties have tabled plans for a Green New Deal, most recently with the UK Labour and Green party sponsored private members ‘The Decarbonisation and Economic Strategy Bill’.

Our report argues that to tackle the climate and ecological crisis effectively, there needs to be a deeper systemic reform to the prevailing political-economic model – in the form of a UK social contract for sustainability and a just transition – in which devolution and empowered city-regions must play a central role. Whilst the innovative policies which LCR is pursuing can to varying degrees, be undertaken within the existing political-economic model, our provocation is that their capacity to be enacted and their impact would be greatly enhanced if they were supported by such a new contract.

This new social contract might include:

  1. Proactive Government and a green public works programme: Funding should be provided for ambitious and compelling green infrastructure and public works projects which support clean growth.
  2. Devolution and stronger City Regions: More democratic power and resources need to be transferred to LCRCA and LCR local authorities to strengthen local capacity to enact bespoke remediation actions.
  3. Enhanced City Region environmental governance capacity: There is a need to establish which institutions/set of institutions might be needed to furnish the convening power which will be required if City Region’s are to drive forward a strategic and joined-up local response to the climate and ecological emergency – not least given the extent to which environmental problems range widely across climate, air, water, waste, and biodiversity, and additionally impinge upon a broad range of policy areas including economic development and regeneration, health, transport, housing, and education.
  4. Affordable finance; Pioneering new financial tools, packages, and rules are needed to secure a new scale of public and private sector capital investment
  5. Disciplined and incentivised market delivering clean growth: Government should adopted fiscal rules and scale business enablers and supports targeted at high-performing and high impact local green technology and service companies, including innovative SMEs and social enterprises.
  6. Enhanced community and citizen participation: Communities need to be empowered to enable them to build resourcefulness and capacity to deliver green outcomes for their neighbourhoods and enjoy ‘ownership’ of green projects.
  7. Promoting environmental justice: Government should work to redress environmental injustices by increasing the accountability of those most responsible for creating pollution and waste, and strengthening the ability of vulnerable groups to cope with the impacts of climate change.
  8. Improving carbon literacy: Smart technology and bespoke real-time data feedback could increase the carbon literacy of all energy consumers, helping them calculate their carbon footprint and clarifying more precisely their carbon offsetting budgets.
  9. Spatial planning for eco-friendly cities: Spatial development plans should promote a spatial organisation and land use geography for City-Region’s which maximises ecological objectives.
  10. New performance metrics: Governments might further develop bespoke measures of wellbeing which prioritise welfare outcomes and social justice, not simply economic growth. Natural capital approaches should be developed.
  11. Data Trusts: To enable extraction of the full economic, social, and environmental value of big data sustainably and whilst maintaining public trust, City-Region’s might create a ‘civic data trust’ for sharing climate and environmental data and enabling a new generation of climate services which serve all communities, including vulnerable communities.

This talk was delivered at the LCR Environmental Summit held on Nov 8th 2019. It derives from an Issues Paper prepared by the  Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place at the University of Liverpool as a contribution to the ‘2019 Year of the Environment Liverpool City-Region’, and in particular to the Summit.

A summary paper and a full paper can be downloaded from the Heseltine Institute website –