Leaders convene as climate still top priority during pandemic
"We will not let the coronavirus pandemic alter our plans to tackle the climate emergency."
This was one of the key messages to come out of a virtual international meeting between the leaders of three communities across two continents which have each been leading on achieving carbon neutrality.
Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council, Boris Palmer, Mayor of Tübingen in Germany and Christopher Taylor, Mayor of Ann Arbor in Michigan in the US, took part in a webinar using Zoom.
Organised by the US National League of Cities, the theme of the event was "A carbon neutral future for three communities - The way forward post-Covid-19 in Ann Arbour, USA, Durham, UK, and Tübingen, Germany."
Each leader presented their area's plans to tackle climate change and their achievements so far. This was followed by questions from members of the public across Europe and the US, who had been invited to log in and watch the meeting.
Council's commitment to environment
In his presentation, Cllr Henig outlined our long-standing commitment to the environment, having established a low carbon economy team and carbon management programme in 2009, the same year we became a unitary authority.
In 2019, we became one of the first in the UK to declare a climate emergency and Cllr Henig highlighted successful projects, ranging from planting almost one million trees across the county and helping residents make their homes more energy efficient, to embracing solar and hydroelectric power and replacing streetlights with more eco-friendly models. These measures and others have already led to a 47 per cent reduction in the council's emissions since 2008. Countywide, emissions have fallen by more than 50 per cent since 1990.
Cllr Henig also gave an update on the Climate Emergency Response Plan, which was published this February and embeds climate change in all areas of our work. This includes having climate change as a responsibility in all job descriptions and creating a network of Climate Champions.
When asked about the coronavirus pandemic he said: "It is essential we seek a green recovery from the pandemic. There will be economic challenges, but will we not let this alter our plans to tackle the climate emergency and we must not take our foot off the pedal."
Sharing steps with twinned town
Mayor Boris Palmer, meanwhile, shared the steps being taken in Tübingen, which has been twinned with County Durham since 1969. As part of its campaign, 'Tübingen Goes Blue', the city is working to achieve carbon neutrality and is implementing a range of measures, including switching to LED street lighting, installing 400 high-efficiency circulating pumps in municipal buildings and exploring renewable energy sources such as biomass.
Ann Arbour is also working to become carbon neutral and Mayor Christopher Taylor provided an insight into the city's plan, A2Zero. This includes switching its fleet to electrical vehicles, reducing its mileage by 50 per cent, and improving the energy efficiency of homes, business, schools and public buildings. It is also aiming for its electricity grid to be powered by 100 per cent renewable energy.
Impact of pandemic
The public questions also prompted some interesting discussions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. All three leaders agreed that the pandemic has shown that the world is able to take drastic action in response to an emergency. Many things, including how we work, shop and travel, will be different in the long-term and it will be essential that we seek a green recovery.
The leaders were also asked about the steps they are taking to encourage other towns and cities to follow their lead and all three leaders agreed that it is essential that everyone takes action now to tackle the urgent problem of climate change - the future costs of not acting will be far greater than the cost of taking action now. They all pledged their commitment to sharing their successes and lessons learnt in the future.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Henig said: "Sharing our ambitions and our practices with others has always been an important part of our carbon neutral development, and this hasn't been curbed despite the pandemic. We want to keep building on the successful sense of innovation that has had real impact so far. The coronavirus has changed the way we think about many things, but the need to champion our environment is one thing that has remained at the forefront of our plans for the future."
To find out more about the meeting and to view a recording, visit the Sustainability and low carbon economy page.