What I would like readers to take away from this interview is a sense of hope for the future the post-coved recovery could create.
It is nearly a year since a few of us from Birmingham Youth Strike 4 Climate met with Mayor Andy Street to discuss the West Midlands’ role in dealing with climate change.
The West Midlands joined Birmingham in declaring a climate emergency barely a month later, but with a less ambitious aim of being climate neutral by 2041 (Birmingham aims for 2030).
As it is nearly a year since the West Midlands’ declaration I asked Mayor street to answer a few questions about what has been done to tackle the climate crisis since then.
Our planned face-to-face interview was conducted on line, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. I started by asking what changes we had already seen in the West Midlands?
Mayor Street (MS): “Our region is unquestionably facing a climate emergency, and so I am pleased that, after consulting youth climate strikers, we were able to officially recognise this.
I refuse to set a target that is not realistic and give false promises to the young people of the West Midlands. The date of 2041 is backed up considerably by science and I am confident we will be able to reach it.
The feedback from the Tyndall centre [a well-respected partnership bringing together researchers and engineering to develop sustainable responses to climate change] was also that most of our action has to be done early on if we are to meet that target, and so two interim targets were suggested – a 36 percent reduction by 2022 and a 69 percent reduction by 2027 (against a 2018 baseline).
The #WM2041 green paper was put together with 73 possible actions to meet the climate challenge.”
Olivia Wainwright (OW): It is great to hear about the 2022 and 2027 reductions, as to tackle the climate crisis we need to get going fast. 2041 is far too late so I was pleased to hear that nearly 70 percent would be achieved by 2027. What concrete changes can we expect to see?
MS: “There will need to be swift and radical changes across the areas of transport, energy and the built environment.
We have identified some actions that we are able to get on with now, particularly in the context of the recovery from Covid-19. For example, we are looking to retain the increase we have seen in active travel (walking and cycling) through behaviour change campaigns and infrastructure support; we are working to enhance green space across the West Midlands through increased tree planting; and, we are looking at how we might establish a region-wide retrofit programme, which will bring jobs to the region as well as reduce carbon emissions.
We also know that it’s important for us to show leadership on climate change, and we started this through a commitment to removing Single Use Plastics from our buildings by the end of 2020.”
OW: What time frame can we expect these changes to happen in?
MS: “We will be implementing change from now. The recovery from Covid-19 needs to show a response that puts climate and inclusive growth and its heart.”
OW: That is the best answer I could have hoped for! It’s imperative that we start all actions immediately - we’ve wasted too much time already. You pledged that the West Midlands would have the first clean bus fleet outside of London by 2021, how will the Coronavirus emergency affect that?
MS: “Whilst the current emergency has impacted work programmes, operators and the supply chain continue to work to deliver improvements where practical.
Through the West Midlands Bus Alliance, we remain committed to having a minimum Euro VI bus fleet by the end of April 2021. Just before the coronavirus emergency, we secured a further £340,000 to retrofit at least 20 buses to Euro VI, which will complement existing investment and upgrade programmes for cleaner vehicles.”
OW: Switching to Euro VI buses is a great step forward as it will reduce emissions considerably but I am still looking forward to the day that our buses are electric (London already has 200 electric buses). But of course to get people using public transport you need to think beyond issues like emissions. I have been told by many people that they don’t use public transport due to safety concerns. How can you make people feel safe when using the new public transport system?
MS: “The West Midlands is fortunate to have a dedicated resource through the Safer Travel Partnership, working to reduce crime on public transport and make people feel safer. The Partnership includes a team of officers from both West Midlands Police and British Transport Police, who patrol bus, rail and Metro.
This team has been bolstered by adding additional officers in 2020/21, including full time officers and special constables, as well an increased security presence at bus stations. The network is also covered by an upgraded high definition CCTV network, operating 24/7/365.
Whilst crime more broadly has increased over the last 12 months, crime on the West Midlands’ public transport network has reduced. Put simply, we want everyone to feel safe when they use public transport and we are working hard collaboratively to achieve that.”
OW: [Of course, with social distancing now in place, it’s becoming more of a priority to get people walking and/or cycling than on public transport. So the safety of cyclists and pedestrians has become paramount. I did not ask Mayor Street about this as the questions were written pre-lockdown.]
As a teenager, I use public transport to travel across the West Midlands to see friends, but have to do unnecessary detours via Birmingham City Centre. Are efforts being made to connect the West Midlands without increasing traffic going into Birmingham, and if so how will this be done?
MS: “The region’s transport authority is currently reviewing its long-term strategic transport plan, Movement for Growth.
Earlier this year I set out my vision for a greatly expanded light rail and metro network. This will open up many new journeys by public transport across the West Midlands and, as you have identified as a problem, connect more non-city centre locations.”
OW: Birmingham will be climate neutral by 2030 whilst the WMCA has gone for 2041. Will that result in a stronger focus being placed on Birmingham? How will you ensure that the whole West Midlands is receiving adequate support to go green?
MS: “We support all efforts being taken by local authorities across the region to tackle climate change, and this will include support for those places that feel they are able to go faster.
But reducing carbon emissions to net zero is something that will require significant collaboration across the whole of the WMCA, not only from local authorities but also from business, individuals and communities. In light of this, we are working with all our authorities equally. We are all in this together.
OW: The Climate Emergency Declaration is for net-zero which suggests that offsetting will be involved. How will this be done? Are there plans for a new forest to be planted in the West Midlands and are there any details about that?
MS: We plan to mitigate as many of the emissions as possible through the #WM2041 climate plan.
That said, offsetting will remain an important consideration, particularly for some hard to tackle emissions. We will need to consider a range of options for offsetting and, where possible, to keep the activity as local as we can to make sure that it is benefitting people across the West Midlands.
Tree planting is one of our priorities and could support offsetting, but is one that also delivers on other social and environmental benefits. We are leading an initiative called the Virtual Forest, which will bring support to groups planting trees across the West Midlands.
I am pleased that more than 1,700 trees have now been planted as part of this initiative, and we are pushing to significantly increase this number.
I had hoped to hear a more ambitious plan for turning more wasteland over to nature during our interview. The Covid-19 lockdown has really shown how communities benefit from having green areas on the doorstep.
I am pleased to hear the objective of keeping activities local and that there is an initiative in place, but a real forest will always be better than a virtual forest.
I would like to thank Mayor Street for taking the time to carefully respond to each question, in detail (I had to cut a lot for this article!) It is great to find politicians that do listen and respond to our concerns, specifically regarding such huge issues as climate change.
What I would like readers to take away from this interview is a sense of hope for the future the post-covid recovery could create.
Although the virus has stolen what feels like a year of my teenagehood, and has negatively impacted so many lives in so many different ways, it is possible that as we move forward, we can create a better world for us all to live in, but only if we take the climate crisis seriously.
Birmingham Youth Strike 4 Climate has a new social media campaign calling on Birmingham City Council to live up to its Climate Emergency Declaration. If anyone from Birmingham City Council would like to be interviewed next, let me know!
Olivia Wainwright is a member of the Birmingham Youth Strike 4 Climate (@bhamys4c), she blogs about the climate.
Image: Birmingham Youth Strike 4 Climate.