Manchester Green Summit – Hosted by Andy Burnham

It was a privilege to participate in the Manchester Green Summit yesterday as the event was heavily over-subscribed. I found the meeting very stimulating with a wide range of views about how Manchester could become the “Greenest” City Region in the UK. Here are my semi-random thoughts on the event…

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, started proceeding by setting out an aspiration for Manchester to become a zero-carbon city  – although he did not pledge a specific date to achieve this, he did suggest that we should be bold and commit to achieving this at least a decade earlier than the current 2050 target date.

The reason we need this level of urgency was starkly presented by Kevin Anderson from the Tyndal Centre. His brilliant talk cut through all the complexities surrounding emissions goals and reminded us that there is only one thing that matters – the absolute CO2 emissions that we put into the atmosphere. According to research by him and his colleagues we (Greater Manchester) have a budget of just 71 million tonnes of CO2 in order to meet the 2 ºC target we signed up to in the Paris Agreement.  At current rates of emissions we will spend this in just 5-6 years.

So, what is needed, according to Kevin, is cogency (understanding the stark reality and limits we need to meet), integrity (in ensuring that the largest emitters make the biggest contribution) and courage (to act quickly and decisively). Incremental change is just another path to failure nothing less than a rapid and unprecedented transformation of the way we use and supply energy will do.

As I have said on many occasions, this is not an “either or choice”. We need to invest heavily to radically reduce demand.  This will involved dramatically greater greater efficiency and significant structural changes in how we deliver human services (e.g. we need to shift to public transport or move away from gas heating to electric heating). How we package and distribute energy must change – whether that is to generate more electricity locally or to use new fuels such as hydrogen to power the internal combustion engines we rely on so extensively. Finally we need to generate electricity in a much more renewable way – recognizing every generation method has drawback (biofuels are much less sustainable than advertised and compete with food crops, wind turbines can blight landscapes and seascapes, solar PV only delivers energy when the sun is shining and so requires significant base-load support or environmentally-unfriendly batteries, nuclear is expensive and risky and, while carbon capture and storage is on the drawing board, fossil fuels are the most profligate way of spending our limited emissions budget).

At one point the conversation was focusing on new buildings and I felt compelled to put in a plug for efficiency – the most rapid and cost-effective emissions reduction process we have at our disposal and which should be the among the very first actions we take (see the video clip below). Once we know how low we can go in our demand, then we can size our distribution and supply correctly (although we should not wait to start to transform our supply).

For the full video go to 

The conference was a microcosm of society. There were clearly some folks who felt that the change should be revolutionary – “let’s close Manchester Airport”. Other participants, such as ex Manchester United footballer and property developer Gary Neville (shown 2nd from the left above) were honest as to the barriers “if it is not legislated for, the investment won’t happen”.  We had a vision of a city where pedestrians, bicycles and zero-carbon buses consign the personal automobile to history or where every planning decision delivers Natural Capital Net Gain. Most compelling, in many ways, was the view of the young people who spoke to remind us that it is their future we have in our hands.

Apart from some well intentioned but howling mistakes (such as urging folks to switch to renewable energy supplies paid for by others – e.g. the Big Clean Switch), I thoroughly welcomed the diversity of views, practical or not.  Change happens when vociferous and passionate citizens and engaged politicians and regulators bring about a paradigm shift to release investment and expertise to bring about the desired transformation. Outrage, passion, idealism and naivety can be far more powerful forces for change than carefully considered business cases!

Andy Burnham (right in the video) and Councillor Alex Ganotis (second from right in the video – Leader of Stockport Council and lead on the green agenda in Greater Manchester), are to be applauded for their inclusive approach and desire to harness citizen power to drive transformation rather than incremental change. Praise also to Mark Atherton, the Director of Environment who was instrumental in much of the practical detail of the meeting.

One aspect that I found especially interesting was the notion that every participant should make a pledge. Here is mine. We were reminded that not only was Manchester the birth-place of the Industrial Revolution, but also of the Trades Unions, the Suffragettes and the National Parks movement. If we could do that in the past, why not become leaders in decarbonization?

There will be a follow-up within 12 months. I hope the passion and enthusiasm I saw yesterday are not diluted. I also hope that we have moved firmly away from talking to doing – after all we have only 5-6 years of carbon emissions left. Here I am reminded of my own trio of ingredients for change Mandate, Method and Momentum. The conference was all about creating a Mandate for action and teasing out some of the Method. It is time for us all to roll up our sleeves and put the flesh on the change that is needed.




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