Optimism bias and what it means for Manchester’s climate targets

Optimism bias. It’s a weird name for a phenomenon that is both lauded, but also potentially dangerous. It means assuming that the better outcome (whatever “better” means…) will automatically occur. In Co-op Live, a development we wrote about and cautioned against back in the foggy COVID-infused times of July 2020, we have a prime example of this bias and of not “building back better”.

What we’ve seen unfold in the botched opening of Co-op Live is likely the consequence of much nodding and brightsiding  in the layers of well-paid and suited corporate management,presuming.things will just work themselves and very little listening or understanding about how progress was actually getting on from the contractors on-site. Just push the lads on site to work 24hrs a day and pay them overtime a couple weeks before opening? That should do it.

Billboard at the AO under construction in October 2022. We wonder who certified the “Zero Waste To Landfill” and “Zero Food Waste” taglines…

Maybe they thought they could blag a barely-functional venue through building control in a city that bears the scars and scrutiny of security and emergency response systems at large venues. Reality came crashing down as hard as that ventilation system fell to the floor,with the added humiliation of major artists now going to perform at the rival AO Arena.

If we create targets, they’ll automatically be happen right? Or if we don’t, there’s no consequence. That appears to be the assumption behind so many “green” targets. Manchester used the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change at the University to ground it in the science and the global agreement from Paris in 2015 to take its “fair share”. It’s also coming up to five years since it declared a climate emergency.

Targets and carbon budgets are all fine, but what happens when it’s starkly apparent that there’s little chance that you’re going to cut emissions at anywhere near the amounts required and you’re not even looking to urgently use what powers are in the council’s control to limit the burn of its remaining budget? Whether that’s on a bungled new venue like Co-op Live in Eastlands or a so-called “health and well-being resort” in Therme Manchester in Trafford Park? Optimism bias is rife in project management and bureaucracies. Put the climate emergency into this type of system and it will only compound the problem.

Optimism bias is a dangerous thing in this type of system, and when it comes to something as critical  as global heating. It  relies on institutions not learning from past failure and deliberately forgetting what’s been done before. It surely plays some part in getting us to where we are now. That is to say,  staring down an ever shrinking carbon budget to keep heating to a “safe” level that will be all gone probably by 2027 if not sooner. Will at that point they take the climate emergency a bit more seriously and start planning for the inevitable dangers of what’s coming? When will the reality of the climate emergency come crashing down on these leaders?

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