We must act now to create a more sustainable world

Our future must be greener and fairer for everyone

January 22, 2021
Progress in the face of adversity: even as coronavirus shut down Greater Manchester, work carried on in the fight against climate change © Andy Barton/Alamy Live News
Progress in the face of adversity: even as coronavirus shut down Greater Manchester, work carried on in the fight against climate change © Andy Barton/Alamy Live News

The past year showed us how radical change can be possible when faced with a global crisis. Right across the world, we have been forced to adapt the way we live, work and travel, and rethink the way we protect livelihoods and communities at risk. But we also saw how the impact of such a crisis hit hardest amongst the most disadvantaged people in society.

The challenge of the coronavirus pandemic is inseparable from the challenge of the climate crisis. If the message wasn’t clear before, it must surely be now: we need urgent action to create a world that is more sustainable and more resilient than before.

Here in Greater Manchester we’ve been working on making our ambitions a reality. Back in 2019, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) declared a climate emergency. This was not simply a symbolic commitment, but a clear message with a specific target for the city-region to be carbon neutral by 2038, and a plan to put us on the path to achieving it.

Achieving those ambitions will require making similarly radical changes to transport, generating energy, and powering our homes and buildings. Challenges like how to fund energy-efficiency retrofitting at scale or changing our energy supplies resist simple, narrow policy making. These problems are complex, requiring systemic change, involving many different resources and organisations.

The GMCA acts as a convenor to bring together a broad base of local stakeholders, from the private sector, social housing providers, academia and community groups, all working with local government to create innovative solutions to fundamental environmental and economic issues. These groups are not “talking shops”—they have created shared objectives and strategies, and provided the basis for co-operation to achieve them.

Despite the challenges of 2020, we continued to make good progress. We established an Energy Innovation Agency with our universities, and an Environment Fund with the Wildlife Trust. We supported solar projects with our local authorities and initiated retrofitting programmes in homes and across the public estate. But we can’t ignore the reality of the current situation. Our businesses have suffered under local and national restrictions. People’s health and economic security have been hit hard, particularly the younger generation.

We need a recovery that doesn’t just reset everything back to the start of 2020, but responds to these needs and prepares us for the future. Our plan here in Greater Manchester will focus on delivering growth, skills and employment to meet our environmental commitments. The problems we now face may be complex, but we have the potential to reshape both our environment and our economy for the better.

Take retrofitting, a problem that has repeatedly eluded policy makers. A co-ordinated programme of retrofitting can offer a solution to cutting carbon emissions and reducing fuel poverty, improving homes and creating high quality skilled jobs. We are working with our partners to develop a systematic approach, considering not just the skills deficit, technical solutions and innovative finance, but how to stimulate demand for the solutions we are developing.

Our increasing connectedness also requires new skills in low-carbon heating and storage systems, which may soon become the norm for many households. We’ve seen the Smart Data Communications Company (DCC) open their national centre here, while Upside Energy is expanding its innovation hub.

With typical Manchester spirit, people here are already taking the initiative. Retrofit Get-In, the training programme set up by theatre workers while our cultural venues were closed, provides a fantastic model to support reskilling. Despite this, until demand for these skills increases, market confidence will remain low. We need government to commit to long term funding to build confidence in the market.

Many years from now, when we reflect on this period, I hope we can look back and say that this was the time we got serious about tackling the climate emergency and, by doing so, started transforming our places and people’s lives for the better. This is our chance not to go back to normal, but forward to something better, greener, and fairer for everyone.

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.