How can Exeter fight the Climate Crisis?

The featured image and all images in this article were taken by Jake Bonetta at the ‘How can Exeter fight the Climate Crisis?’ event on 22/10/2021.

On Friday 22nd October, Exeter Labour Society along with Exeter Labour for a Green New Deal hosted an event with a panel of local experts to seek out some of the solutions that are needed for the city to confront ecological collapse.

The event began with each of the four expert guests giving a brief talk about themselves and their unique perspective on the crisis. First to speak was Professor Richard Betts MBE. Prof. Betts is Chair of Climate Impacts at the University of Exeter and Head of Climate Impacts in the Met Office Hadley Centre. He has worked on developing climate modelling and was a lead author on the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He is considered a global expert on the climate crisis.

Prof. Betts delivered a short presentation on the hard facts surrounding the environmental damage done already and the future projections he has helped develop. According to the Professor, the earth’s average temperature has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius since 1900 and is projected to reach as high as 4 degrees Celsius on the current trajectory. He laid out the consequences of such rises, for example, international problems such as additional days of excessive heat that make large parts of the world uninhabitable and local ones such as impacts on weather severity in Exeter. He went on to talk about the UK’s current greenhouse gas emissions, showcasing how surface transport and buildings are Britain’s largest emitters.

Following Prof. Betts was environmental activist and Exeter City Councillor Zion Lights. Lights, a former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion and author of works on ‘Green’ living, spoke on the panel about the work that Exeter City Council is doing to confront the crisis. This includes the installation of solar panels on council properties, the expansion of Exeter’s cycling network, and the construction of buildings using the high-efficiency Passivhaus energy standards — such as the new St Sidwell’s Point Leisure Centre.

Next to speak was Will Page, who heads the local cycling charity: Ride-On Cycling for All. The organisation encourages cycling in the city and offers a multitude of services, including the retail and repair of bicycles as well as the provision of training courses and information about keeping care of one’s bike. Page presented the grim facts about the dangers of having infrastructure built for cars and not cyclists. In Devon and Cornwall, a total of twenty cyclists were killed on the road last year alone and, on average, four people are killed every day across the country in collisions with larger vehicles. He also stated that an estimated 80% of motorists admit to breaking the 20mph speed limit, highlighting the dangers this poses to cyclists and the promotion of cycling in a city like Exeter.

Last to speak was Ben Bradshaw, member of parliament for Exeter since 1997. Bradshaw is a former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister and currently sits on the Commons Transport Select Committee. He spoke briefly about the work he has done to promote the de-carbonisation of the transport sector and what the Labour Party is doing in parliament to combat the environmental crisis. He moved on to encourage people to discuss the crisis with those unwilling to take action or those who are indifferent to the movement for ecological protection. Bradshaw suggested the most effective action people can take to help the environment — beyond a more eco-friendly lifestyle — is to engage politically. By participating in public consultations, pressure groups and campaigns, or by supporting local councillors and MPs, people can improve the local environmental impact immensely.

Following the opening speeches, the panel were asked a series of questions from the audience which were collated before the event. It started with a question from local school children about the panel’s lifestyle changes that they’ve made to help the environment. The answers from the guests ranged from wearing second-hand shirts to building a solar panel farm, but each could point to substantial changes made over recent years. The co-host of the event, Magi Young, spoke movingly about how seeing young people so engaged on this issue was inspiring and that it is their hope that pushes her to continue to advocate for environmental action.

The next set of questions asked about possible improvements to Exeter’s transport network. Various feasible ideas were presented, which included getting the university to discourage students from bringing cars to the city and ensuring that further developments are built to support cycling and public transportation. However, there were also plenty of policies put forward that are obstructed by political obstacles as both national government and Devon County Council — which handles the regions transport network — are Conservative run. Many on the panel saw the introduction of a low-emissions zone and the taxation of SUV’s as serious solutions to the problems facing the city, though they fall outside the control of the local community.

Further questions were asked to the panel about reducing emissions in Exeter’s housing sector. There was broad agreement that there needs to be an urgent programme by the state to retrofit Britain’s archaic homes and that all future projects require the same high standards that the Council has already introduced. There was much discussion about recent controversial decisions made by the Council to reject planning applications as they harmed Exeter’s green credentials, and that it is only through vocal local support that these tough decisions can be justified. Ben Bradshaw added that one of the biggest problems facing the housing market in Exeter is the fact that the political boundaries of the city desperately need expanding as there is currently a large group of motorists commuting from neighbouring towns and villages.

Many more topics were discussed, including: the retainment and rewilding of local biodiversity, the source of Exeter’s food supply, the need for a restructuring of the energy firms, and the overhaul of government trade policy to protect environmental standards — especially in the agricultural sector. The guests were asked, as a final question, to set out what they believe the local community needs to do to tackle the environmental crisis going forward.

Cllr. Zion Lights highlighted the need to support local politicians in their work, as they are under extreme pressure from developers and pressure groups to sacrifice the city’s environment. Prof. Richard Betts argued similarly that climate scientists too need the support of people in order to raise awareness for the seriousness of the situation and to challenge the spread of misinformation. Ben Bradshaw argued that confronting untruths about the crisis was an important mission as well and urged the audience to complain whenever they encountered it. He also spoke about the need to work hard for a change of national government — as that is where the power to change major policy lies — and encouraged people to go out and campaign for the Labour Party. The event concluded with the co-host Marc Sukumar thanking the guests and audience for coming and providing his comment on current government policy: “Our house is on fire, and we are looking at it and shouting: Levelling Up!

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