As a city, Manchester is way off track on its climate action targets. Instead of properly reckoning with the scale of the challenge, and identifying the causes of failure, Manchester City Council seems hell-bent on pretending that everything is fine.
Unless there is substantial change, the ‘science-based’ carbon budget for the city, which is supposed to last until the end of the century, is likely to be all used up by the end of 2027. That’s 73 years early. To stay on budget, we would need to emit no emissions for the subsequent 73 years.
Before the meeting of the Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee on Thursday 21st July, we at Climate Emergency Manchester released a briefing note on the updated Manchester Climate Change Framework. We circulated it to all the councillors who sit on the climate scrutiny committee. We hoped that some of our questions would be raised. Most of our queries and suggestions were not taken up.
Watching the meeting, it is absurd and frankly devastating to see Manchester’s science-based carbon budget so casually disregarded, just days after a record-breaking, dangerous heatwave. The Council, along with other institutions across the city, have failed to prioritise the city’s carbon budget following the climate emergency declaration from three years ago.
Throwing away lessons learned
Many councillors at the committee did not seem to share our concern. They mostly welcomed the updated Manchester Climate Change Framework during the scrutiny session, offering little effective scrutiny of the situation. The Framework identifies actions that could help improve the city’s response to the climate crisis going forward. But councillors failed to insist on investigations into the reasons for historic failure to take actions on the scale required.
The Council should launch an independent investigation into the failures of the Manchester Climate Change Agency and Partnership. They have been unable to generate emissions reductions at the level needed to meet the targets set out so clearly by the Tyndall Centre. Why have previous targets not been met? Why are we so far off track?
There could have been a strong call from the committee for a proper lesson-learning exercise. But this was not done, probably because too much inquiry would threaten the reputations and career prospects of important people in the city.
There was hardly even any push-back against insufficient ambition (see more below). And there is no clear prospect of improved means of holding the Agency and Partnership accountable for either their past failures or future ones.
What is the point of having science-based targets, if nobody expects to meet them, nobody complains when they fail, and nobody gets held accountable? Why would Manchester City Council set science-based climate targets for the city, only for them to be destroyed? There are a few potential reasons for this: To distract you. To de-mobilise you. To prevent you from getting angry. To make you think they care. To win hollow prizes. To protect careers at the expense of the climate, and future generations.
A system that’s failing to serve
Let us be clear: this system is not working. To break out of it, we must build a locally strong movement of citizens that puts pressure on institutions across Manchester to take the climate emergency seriously. Citizens, understand this: we cannot just leave it to the Partnership, the Agency, or the Councillors. They accept failure.
We need to reject the logic of Partnerships that lack teeth. Not everyone is working together on a proper response to climate breakdown. There is pretence. There are bad faith actors that must be exposed and resisted. There are good faith actors who are incompetent or ill-equipped, who must be shoved along.
The Partnership model is failing. Our briefing note called for a review of the failures that are killing the city’s science-based carbon budget, so there can be a proper lesson-learning exercise. But Mike Wilton, Chair of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership, was hardly put under any pressure during the scrutiny committee meeting.
Many questions to Wilton, and to Samantha Nicholson, Director of the Manchester Climate Change Agency, were on softer subjects like communications and community engagement. Much of the questioning was vague or straightforward for Nicholson and Wilton to respond to unscathed. When under some pressure, Wilton and Nicholson could escape via obfuscations, which went unchallenged. The atmosphere seemed cosy.
Planning for miracles
Councillors even welcomed the proposal to increase the deficit against the carbon budget by pursuing 10% annual reductions in planet-heating gas emissions over the next few years. This would take us further off track, because the science-based targets indicate that Manchester actually needs an average of 16% annual reductions in toxic greenhouse gas emissions every year if we are to meet the carbon budget. Cllr. Doswell (Fallowfield), for example, expressed admiration for the report’s approach of “focusing on a realistic pathway rather than just going for something overly ambitious but ultimately unachievable”.
In contrast, Cllr. Nunney (Woodhouse Park) asked why the Framework proposes just 10% emission reductions in each of the next few years, which would leave 29% annual reductions needed each year later. What makes this feasible?
If we cannot do 16% now, why does anyone think we’ll manage 29% later? The answer, apparently, is that between now and a few years time, some magic might happen. Since miracles are on the agenda, and 10% reductions could (maybe, at a stretch) happen without a radical overhaul, then nobody has to declare the carbon budget dead, and nobody has to change too much. The message: Avoid grief. Avoid overhaul. Avoid accountability. DON’T PANIC. Pretend it’s fine.
It was a shameless spectacle.
Climate Emergency Manchester aims to put consistent and substantial pressure on Manchester City Council and other local centres of political, economic and cultural influence, so that Manchester’s responses to climate change are rapid, radical and do not harm the poorest and marginalised in society. This blog is part of the work of CEM’s Team Scrutiny Fabulous, which reviews the workings of the Council’s scrutiny system and its implications for local responses to the climate crisis. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch with us via email@example.com
Explainer note on the carbon budget:
Manchester has a carbon budget which sets the limit on how many tonnes of dangerous planet-heating gases the city can directly emit from its buildings, industry and transport in the rest of the 21st century, while still being compatible with internationally agreed targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average. Some things don’t count towards this, for accounting purposes, like aviation emissions from the gas guzzling airport, and emissions embedded in all the products imported from elsewhere and bought by Mancunians with disposable income. But the (expensive) gas boilers in Manchester’s poorly insulated houses, the petrol and diesel cars on the streets, the electricity used from a power grid that is not fully decarbonised – that all counts towards the city’s direct emissions, driving heatwaves, flooding and other major ecological consequences around the world, drawing down the remaining ‘safe’ space for emissions in the city’s carbon budget. For more on the carbon budget, give our 3-minute explainer podcast a listen.
Robbie is a core member of Climate Emergency Manchester.