Cllr Joe Porter is the Cabinet Member for Climate Change and Biodiversity on Staffordshire Moorlands District Council.
If anything positive is to emerge from the last six months, it is that we have seen people connecting with the nature on their doorsteps more than ever before. A recent poll by the National Trust has found that “more than half the population plans to make a habit of spending as much time in nature once things go back to normal. As we continue to pay close attention to the advice of scientists in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also heed their warnings about the urgency to act on climate change. Coronavirus has provided a stark reminder of what happens when humanity’s relationship with nature breaks down.
Last week, during New York’s Climate Week, the world rallied together and sought to use this window of opportunity to reset our economy and society for a more sustainable and inclusive future, as outlined by the Prince of Wales. Unless we act swiftly, he says, climate change will become a catastrophe that will ‘dwarf’ the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
This year has been challenging for us all, but we have seen an increased interest in, and appreciation of, the natural world around us. The global lockdown, with fewer cars on the roads and planes in the sky, led to a dramatic drop in greenhouse gases and air pollutants. Here in Staffordshire Moorlands, we have seen our carbon emissions halve this year. A green recovery could significantly alter the long-term outlook and keep the world from exceeding 1.5C of warming by the middle of this century, but to make this happen we must act now.
Since being appointed as Cabinet Member for Climate & Biodiversity at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, I have seen first-hand how local solutions are amongst the best ways of addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. Like many councils across the country, we declared a Climate Emergency last year and have been getting our own house in order, by putting together a work programme to become carbon-neutral by 2030.
So what steps did we take? In year one, we identified opportunities for the Council to embed our commitment to net-zero CO2 emissions into our policies and strategies across the entire organisation. We also investigated larger scale projects: investment in green energy such as solar and wind farms; electric vehicle charging points; and local offsetting of greenhouse gas emissions.
A partnership approach to climate action enabled us to strengthen and support our local links. We have worked closely with Friends groups to improve our country parks; engaged young people and school eco-clubs through our £10,000 Staffordshire Moorlands Community Climate Change Fund; and supported Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and the Canal & River Trust to develop local projects to take real action on the ground.
One of the most important initiatives is our flagship Green Infrastructure Delivery Plan, helping us to deliver a robust nature recovery network in partnership with the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. Our planning officers have worked with their conservation team to map out our green spaces, identifying existing habitats and finding opportunities for creating new wildlife corridors. This will be crucial to making our area more climate resilient, long-term. Over the next few years, the plan will result in a range of nature-based projects, such as community orchards, wildflower meadows, peatland restoration, and woodland expansion, to lock in a green recovery and establish a Nature Recovery Network. As a member of DEFRA’s Local Adaptation Advisory Panel, I will continue to promote nature-based solutions to climate change to the national government and other councils across the country.
Nature-based solutions to climate change benefit not only the local environment, but also the local economy. A recent study by Oxford University has found that supporting a green recovery would produce greater financial returns, in both the short- and long-term, than pouring cash into a conventional fossil-fuelled recovery. Growing the green economy can and should form part of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda to increase investment in left-behind areas such as North Staffordshire. Fifty percent of people in the West Midlands agree with me that tackling climate change as part of the recovery will create new jobs and boost the economy.
Here in Staffordshire Moorlands, we have worked to increase our knowledge of climate change science, to better understand how to mitigate its impacts, and spend time building strong partnerships with the industries and communities that are critical to our success. World-leading climate experts at Keele University have worked with us to assess the impacts of decision-making within the council so that every report we issue highlights climate change impacts. They have also delivered climate literacy training to our councillors and officers to ensure the science is understood, as we make important decisions about the future on behalf of the residents we serve.
As Climate Week showed, we now have a once in a lifetime chance to change our behaviour and take climate action. Locally, I am proud of the ground we have covered so far – but this is work without end and we have much to do. I am determined that our economic recovery in Staffordshire Moorlands will be a science-led, clean and resilient one – and that we address the linked challenges of poor public health, climate change, and biodiversity loss. The actions we take today must ensure that we leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.