Like many cities across the UK and the world, Southampton celebrated Earth Hour on Saturday. We switched off the lighting of our biggest landmarks to remind ourselves of the Earth’s precious resources and that how we use them makes a difference to whether we tackle climate change or not.
But the battle against climate change isn’t about living in the dark: the shift to clean energy and away from fossil fuels is a hard-headed economic decision as well as an environmentally responsible one.
Southampton is now joining the club of nearly 70 British towns and cities that are committed to shift to 100 per cent clean energy by 2050. Indeed Southampton is going even further – committing to reach that goal by 2040.
When we make the commitment in our city, we do it not just for the planet but because it is good for the people we serve. It will enable us to create jobs and growth in a way that is less dependent on fossil fuels, making our communities both healthier and wealthier.
Southampton has been getting on with cleaning up energy supply for years – so is well placed to achieve this. We have harnessed our own local clean energy sources, to create the UK’s first geothermal power scheme. It started initially to supply only the Southampton Civic Centre, but now its users include TV studios, a hospital, a university, a shopping centre, residential buildings and a hotel – as well as public and private-sector residential developments. The district energy network has also been designed to integrate additional low or zero-carbon technologies as they evolve. We are ahead of our target to cut CO2 emissions from our own estate – and have done so every year but one since 2010. Long-term thinking and determination underpin our success.
But there is lots more to do: from shifting transport to cleaner vehicles, making it easier to walk, cycle and use the bus to get around town to work and to play, saving us all money by making our homes and workplaces more energy efficient, and using cleaner forms of energy for heating our homes and workplaces are all important. The city council is in discussions with the university about the feasibility of tidal lagoons providing a source of energy on the River Itchen, possibly in conjunction with a new Light Rail line linking us to Portsmouth. Research suggests we could generate 25 per cent of our energy needs from this source alone
The most immediate impact of dirty energy is on our air: Southampton is a port and freight lorries as well as big ships contribute to the problem. It affects the oldest, the youngest and the poorest, but everyone else can’t escape. By working together with other cities we can come up with solutions that work for the locality but can also be applied elsewhere.
Clean Air Zones are a start, but supporting cleaner vehicles, through procuring them for the council fleet, putting in charging points for electric cars, and finding new ways to move freight about that means fewer big dirty trucks on our roads are all possible with political will and technological savvy.
We see cleaning up our air as part of our shift to an economy without fossil fuels that poison people as well as the planet. Like with dirty air, the poorest and ordinary working people will feel the impacts of climate change first and hardest. It will be them who can’t get insurance for their business, or find their homes flooded out as extreme weather becomes more common.
And though it sounds difficult, the costs of not acting are much greater than of shifting now to cleaner energy. Solar power on buildings (ask any big property owner what are they doing with their roof?), storing electricity to use when you need, using heat from industry to warm our homes, and keeping our energy bills down with smart technology are all possible in a way that five years ago they were not.
Businesses are already doing this. RE100 is a campaign of big businesses, from Jaguar Land Rover to Marks and Spencer, all committed to 100% renewable electricity. They need cities to work with them to make this a reality, and cities need business to adopt the clean energy agenda too: we can work together on this.
Around the time of the Paris climate negotiations in 2015 there was a global movement for local leaders to make the commitment where nation states are often failing. The science of climate change needs political will and practical delivery, which is why UK cities’ and towns’ commitment is so important. But the shift is happening because it makes business and economic sense as well as environmental sense.
The leadership of cities like Southampton makes a difference: encouraging new businesses to come up with new products and processes will create jobs and ensure the city is ahead of the game in the new industrial revolution.
Having a network of UK cities working together also actually creates a bit of healthy competition: why would we leave it to China, if we can do it here, now?
Simon Letts is leader of Southampton city council.