Open response to Southwark Council Deputation

Almost two years after declaring a ‘climate emergency’, Southwark Council have made no real progress cutting carbon emissions. Extinction Rebellion Southwark (XRS) attended Southwark Council’s Cabinet meeting in January 2021 to challenge this delay. Caoimhe Basketter, from XRS, spoke passionately and powerfully about the hope Caoimhe had felt two years ago, when at age 14, they spoke in support of the Council’s original climate emergency proposal of 2019. Now in January 2021, Caoimhe’s despair, frustration, and anger about the wasted two years that have now elapsed were palpable. Listen to Caoimhe’s powerful five minute speech here. 

The response Caoimhe received from the Council was woefully inadequate, and deserves a longer response from concerned Southwark residents, which we offer here. 

For context: two years ago, scientists estimated that if humanity was to have any chance of averting runaway climate change, the world would need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 (a point where no greenhouse gas emissions are produced that are not immediately offset, or neutralised, by carbon capture measures such as planting new trees). To make a just and fair transition to a zero carbon future, industrial countries like the UK need to cut further and faster than developing countries which have not benefited from centuries of emissions to create a modern infrastructure like ours. We say this to emphasise that for the UK – and for Southwark – 2030 is not a target: it is an absolute deadline. We cannot wait till 2030. We need to cut emissions radically now.

Following Caoimhe’s speech, the leader of the Council, Kieron Williams, thanked XRS for holding their ‘feet to the coals’ and the other Councillors were also no doubt sincere in their warm response to Caoimhe’s speech. But their actions do not match up. In their joint response, the Council gave no indication that they really understand what is required of them or any reflection/ explanation why they have wasted so much time.

We would like to directly address the claims of progress made in response by Cllr Johnson Situ, the Cabinet member in charge of the climate emergency:

Energy Supply

At the start of the meeting, Cllr Situ made a special announcement that the Council was now powering its Council operations on 100% renewable electricity, meaning all offices and buildings such as libraries will be powered more sustainably, as well as street lights. 

Whilst we welcome this announcement, we cannot celebrate it because this is effectively changing to a different tariff within the existing procurement only after the Council allowed their initial supply (via five year procurement agreed in 2019) to be defaulted to a supply estimated at only 13% renewables (and from a staggering 87% fossil fuels!). And we are now left to consider the very plausible scenario that because the Council failed to fulfil their commitments of treating the climate emergency as an emergency and reneged on their public promise around 100% supply in the first place, it will now be paying more for renewable electricity supply (through changing tariff) than if they had simply procured for 100% renewable electricity on a fixed tariff in the first place. It is also an unacceptable delay.

This level of supply is also the absolute bare minimum to expect for any Council that takes the climate emergency even semi-seriously. We would celebrate the more ambitious and achievable outcomes such as the use of extremely cost efficient PPA agreements which help to fund the revolution we need to see through the purchase of solar farms to power Council operations and many other homes. This type of action would have much greater outcomes for the purpose of saving money, decarbonisation of the borough, and supporting a green economy and the creation of green jobs.

This announcement also has to be considered in the context of the Council continuing to drag their feet in ensuring 100% renewable supply of how they power their housing stock and can generate power to the grid. As a major landlord in London, they have the power to make a great difference, yet have only committed to power the communal energy used in Council housing within 18 months. This actually accounts for 60% of the Council’s energy use, so only 40% of the Council’s energy use (in terms of electricity) is 100% renewable. 

The contract the Council procured has also failed to place ‘green’ gas into the equation for how to decarbonise the borough. Whilst renewable natural gasses are not a silver bullet, they will, in general, not contribute to climate change as much as natural gas.

Furthermore, the Council have stagnated on using Council housing stock to generate power through the use of solar panels – missing out on the Feed in Tariffs and making little to no progress in this area post-FIT, despite a Council report from mid-2019 making absolutely clear the viability of this work.

Carbon Offsetting

 If these planned changes seem underwhelming, then more disturbing is that the next point made – and the only measure already in place since 2019 – is hardly a great step forward. Cllr Situ announced that the Council is raising the cost of polluting by 50%, for new developments. It used to be £60 and now it will be £90 per ton of carbon. But this kind of policy is a perfect example of what Caoimhe described as the Council ‘treating the climate emergency as a game’. This is the ‘net zero’ game. 

 This is because the payments which allow developers to pollute with impunity are called carbon offset payments. The Council puts a price on each ton of carbon which the future inhabitants of a building will use over 30 years of living in that building and then instead of denying planning permission for these buildings, or demanding that developers change the design of the buildings to include renewable energy sources in order to stop future emissions, the developer can simply stump up the ‘carbon offset’ payment and, hey presto, that building is now carbon ‘net zero’. But that is a false designation.

 In addition, the Council is supposed to use the money to make cuts in carbon emissions somewhere else. So where do they intend to spend the money? Crucially, if the limited carbon reduction policies being so proudly trumpeted by the Council are actually funded by increased pollution in new developments then we end up no further along in contributing to a real cut in global emissions.

Call them ‘carbon offset’, ‘Cash for Carbon’ or ‘Pay to Pollute’, but these payments are a scam that actually derail the effort to cut carbon emissions. They must be scrapped – not increased – or the Council is in danger of creating perverse financial incentives to allow greater hidden pollution in order to fund more superficial ‘green’ improvements, rather than achieving meaningful change. 

In truth the situation is much worse. The Council has already given planning permission for numerous mega developments throughout the borough (using the old offset payment rate) which will be pouring thousands of tons of concrete and steel and many more tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere for more than a decade to come, making a mockery of the 2030 net zero target. To reach net zero we cannot justify demolishing existing buildings or building new ones at all. We need to reuse and retrofit what we already have.

Caoimhe asked for the climate emergency to dictate all other policies: transport and the built environment are the areas where the Council could achieve the biggest impact in the shortest time span. But the Council can only do so if it has the political will to challenge vested interests and a commitment to make substantial financial investments. We have seen no sign of that. 

Tree Planting

Cllr Situ also set out the Council’s recent commitment to plant 10,000 trees by 2022. Again, whilst we welcome such a commitment, we can only greet it with cautious optimism, especially without more detail.

All announcements on the subject have not included whether the Council have set intelligent targets around street canopy cover, a vital and cost-effective method for climate adaptation, flood and heating mitigation in the borough.

The 10,000 target also has to be considered in the context of the borough already losing approximately 2,000 mature trees within the last decade. And we also need to consider what variety of trees will be included within this number both in terms of maturity of trees and types. For example, how many of the 10,000 trees that Southwark Council have promised include whips, which are an important aspect of the diversity in trees, but are nevertheless, essentially hedges that will not sequester the same level of carbon? In addition, whips take a long time to grow, and many species now chosen are for trees that never grow too big to avoid the need to remove car parking spaces for them.

In addition, we have to factor into this commitment, the decision of the Council in delaying its tree planting to February 2021 running to April/May 2021, which was supposed to begin in October 2020. This represents a much higher risk of tree deaths.

If the Council are serious about being national leaders, then they only need take a look at Hackney with half our area size, who have committed to over three times as many trees, or even Stockport which has a significantly lower population than Southwark but who have nevertheless committed to planting 17,000 trees by a similar time frame. Why can we not achieve this in Southwark?

New Southwark Plan

In the Cabinet meeting, Cllr Situ also promised to publish the Council’s suggested amendments to the New Southwark Plan (the overarching  plan for future developments in the borough to 2033, which has not yet been passed and is not currently fit for purpose) and the Movement Plan (transport infrastructure) by the end of March. 

In response to that, we say that first, the New Southwark Plan in particular has not yet been passed. There is still time to withdraw the plan and align it with the Council’s carbon emission goals without passing it and going through a lengthy process to amend the plan retroactively. Achieving net zero requires such radical change and quickly that both these plans are unfit for purpose and must be started again from scratch. 

Secondly, these plans were not found under a rock or sent to the Council by the government. They have been written and amended by the Council themselves in the two years since they declared a climate emergency. We are struggling to understand why they did not previously consider reconciling these plans with their climate commitments.

XRS wants to welcome their plans; however, our fear is that the Council has not really reflected on the internal barriers and siloed working culture that have so far prevented them putting the climate emergency at the heart of everything they do, or what they are going to do differently now. 

What next?

Cllr Williams said that the Council are already asking themselves in every conversation: ‘How will this help us deliver our climate targets?’ The previous Cabinet member for climate said in September 2019 this was already the plan. So why hasn’t it happened yet? But as Caoimhe told the Cabinet, there will be no prizes for doing our best if our best is not good enough. There will only be catastrophic consequences if we fail. 

We can’t afford to pat the Council on the back for good intentions or gently coax them to try harder.  The Council must ask themselves what needs to be done (spoiler: we need to cut emissions drastically and urgently) and then set out the criteria to justify any procedure, policy or service which creates or facilitates continued emissions. Every decision the Council takes must be considered in the light of its carbon impact and contribute to a net zero trajectory. If this plan was subject to public scrutiny through participative, informed forums such as Citizen’s Assemblies, as XRS has long requested, we could all bring expertise, enthusiasm, and local buy-in to achieve this quicker, more effectively and more efficiently. 

The COVID-19 crisis has shown us how important it is for government policies to start with measures required by scientists and designed wider policies on that basis. Since scientists told us the truth about the COVID-19 virus, the British public have been ahead of our politicians at every step. We have shown as a nation that we are willing to make great personal sacrifices for the greater good, supporting unprecedented public spending and demanding that the cost of the pandemic does not fall on the poorest. The climate crisis is as great a threat, yet for some reason, our local Council will not tell residents the full truth of the changes required.

Whatever the root cause of the Council’s failings – whether they are deceiving us or themselves to avoid facing hard truths about the climate crisis – we must force them to face reality. There is no way to game the climate crisis. We cut emissions drastically now; or we face catastrophic consequences. Our children and our grandchildren deserve so much better.

From XR Southwark Lobbying Working Group