Declaring a climate emergency means taking the necessary action.
We need to change, not the climate, and the dialogue around the climate is changing.
In Waltham Forest, we have ambitions to be the greenest, most sustainable borough in London, and our track record shows that, with strong leadership and a bold approach, communities, local businesses and authorities can achieve real change.
In April 2019, we announced a climate emergency and have since assembled a Climate Emergency Commission – the first in London – made up of independent industry experts, and chaired by Syed Ahmed, from Energy for London, and Lucy Padfield, from Ramboll, an engineering, design and consultancy company.
Using evidence gathered through our largest ever public engagement, the commission will make recommendations for how we, as a borough, can work together to tackle this huge global issue in a local context.
In Waltham Forest, a bold approach is paying dividends. The Enjoy Waltham Forest programme – road and public realm improvements to promote walking, cycling and sustainable transport – has resulted in 27km of segregated cycle lanes being built, cycle usage increasing by 103 per cent, and car usage falling by 7 per cent. The number of Waltham Forest households exposed to dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) reduced from 58,000 to 6,300, and children born in the borough since 2013 are expected to live six weeks longer. These hard-fought improvements were vigorously challenged by residents and businesses alike at the time, long before general public opinion moved toward agreeing that drastic action needed to be taken.
We have invested more than £2.4 million, through the Salix Recycling Fund, on energy efficiency measures in our corporate estate over the past decade, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to deliver huge carbon dioxide (CO2) savings – 2,721 tonnes a year.
Using the recycling fund model, we have delivered 33 energy efficiency projects delivering environmental benefits and £500,000 of annual savings. Installing more than 1,000 solar panels on council properties, retrofitting more than 10,000 council homes, and reducing gas consumption by 25 per cent – and electricity usage by 10 per cent – have contributed to carbon emissions falling by almost 35 per cent since 2005.
Other measures include: divesting our pension funds from oil, gas or coal stocks, the first government body to do so; the creation of a trial ‘low plastic zone’ in one of our town centres, to encourage small businesses to move away from ecologically damaging single-use plastics; and a tree-planting programme that has resulted in 13,000 new trees being planted since 2005, taking our total to more than 50,000.
Practically, it’s about making sure the green agenda underpins council decision-making, programmes and policies, and balancing the different priorities, including regulations, finance and residents’ needs. It is about tenacious leadership and a willingness to be disruptive to make a meaningful difference.
It’s all well and good declaring a climate emergency – but what really matters is taking the necessary action. We can’t operate in isolation: communities need to be engaged and buy into the response, and borough boundaries must be blurred.
The Government must give practical support, not just wise words, to help councils, businesses, community groups and residents tackle this issue – before it is too late. We need to change, not the climate.