Manchester plans to keep on reducing its carbon emissions – some thoughts

The February update from Manchester A Certain Future (MACF) has arrived this week with news on efforts by all partners towards reducing the carbon footprint of Manchester, which I fully support.

MACF is a broad based organisation of many partners and philosophies, from some neoliberal globalisation in economic policy to grass roots local cooperatives and campaigns. Any progressive city is necessarily a mixture of movements, beliefs, organisations, authorities and trends. So, for example, it would be unrealistic to look for a uniform ‘party line’ and it is better that different interests find a way to ‘rub along’ for the greater good.

There are some encouraging signs. For example, Manchester City Council plans to replace 56,000 street lights with low-energy LED lamps, saving up to 60% on carbon emissions. Probably many Manchester partners first saw an LED street lamp at CCI and CUBE on Portland Street. It was the early production prototype Philips 82watt lamp, part of an exhibition on new indoor and outdoor low-energy lights.

But some signs are less encouraging.

Many of us had assumed that higher energy prices were a natural ratchet which would lead to less energy demand and consumption. Better insulation and high-efficiency boilers would become cheaper – and more attractive each year – when compared with rising energy bills. Well, we learnt the hard way in 2013 that this model has limits, especially when there is a context of austerity and reducing living standards. People pushed back on prices, rather than spending more now to save later.

Yet in MACF there is (still) a stated desire to maximise the “multi-million pound Green Deal” programme in 2014. Really? Even after the abysmal national take-up figures in 2013 and then the shift of ECO cost collection away from using consumer fuel bills and on to general taxation? It feels very unlikely, unless Green Deal now is only about the ECO payments to social landlords, in which case the Treasury would probably give it to HCA to manage as grant aid.

So, it feels there is a bit of catching up to do. I know that is a challenge currently, especially when many organisations have shrinking resources and are being hollowed out. But we must show the resilience we look for in others, and find ways to be optimistic as well as determined.

The recent storms and flooding in the UK have brought climate change into sharp focus, and early 2014 might be a moment when the popular mood changes. But we should be careful not to rely on it too much. It would be lovely to think that, when the prime minister said “money is no object” that all our wishes will now come true. But what he said was just to rephrase something well known in the public sector, which states that any public service is allowed to break the rules when it is a matter of saving life and limb – “money is no object in a relief effort”. Unfortunately for the climate change agenda, the increased spending on flood defences in the UK will probably come from the two usual suspects of savings and contingencies. For some time now, it has been ever thus.

The storms and flooding may lead to a new emphasis on adaptation, but possibly with even less effort on prevention. After all, it is possible to fully support adaptation without admitting that carbon emissions are the problem. Adaptation alone does not ask questions about the causes of climate change, so it could be caused by … sunspots, natural cycles, or even changes in the price of Marmite.

In my opinion, and supported by science, climate change prevention (or reduction, given it has already started) is essential. But if there is no major national shift towards prevention and therefore stronger reductions in carbon emissions, even though I and many others wish it would happen, what are Manchester and other cities to do?

Transport and the heating of buildings remain the high impact sectors for reducing carbon emissions. The MACF ambition for more people in buildings to show their visitors a Display Energy Certificate (DEC) is one that I hope takes a strong hold. I have said before that every shop window on Market Street or in the Northern Quarter should have a DEC in the corner. Keep it simple, uncluttered, A5 size is enough, showing their A to G rating and maybe a QR barcode for anyone who wants more details. Surely a great student project.

Another practicality. For carbon literacy and buildings I would suggest that in the built environment professions we start to examine the use of U values. For example, windows. A double glazed or triple glazed window makes a building warmer because it is better insulated, and the measurement of the amount of insulation is its U value. The lower it is, the better. But when new windows are advertised on TV, there is no mention of U values. TV ads instead talk about windows being “Triple A Rated” or similar. In terms of insulation, many people now will know about duvets and togs. The higher the tog number, the warmer it is, because the higher the amount of insulation. Some good engineers will wince here, because togs are for textiles and U values are for building materials. But … carbon literacy, folks … I would ask: if your choice between two new windows is U values of 0.67 and 1.1, what do you think? Now, if I tell you the two windows have values of tog 9 and tog 15, is that any clearer now which one will give you a warmer room? I think so.

So, the take-home message for the built environment and housing professions is, show a DEC and talk tog.

Disclaimer: My personal views only. So far I have worked for national, regional and local government, the private sector, the voluntary sector, and universities. That only leaves the church and the military still to do, though I did once have a boss who was an ex-army chaplain. Nothing in these blog postings is a statement of the policies or practices of any current or former clients or employers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s