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How does Sheffield ‘build back better’?

With the world under a cloud of COVID-19, decisions made right here in Sheffield could still meaningfully combat climate change and improve our collective quality of life.

sheffield-skyline-unsplash
Benjamin Elliott (Unsplash)

It’s been widely claimed that a rare positive of COVID-19 is the potential for major change to protect the environment. The phrase ‘Build Back Better’ has been tagged onto a range of possibilities, from an enduring shift to flexible working to eco-friendly building improvements.

So far this discussion has often had a national slant. But whatever the pronouncements from Westminster, real change will also depend on sustained effort at a local and regional levels. Can Sheffield take anything from recent months to construct a greener city for the years to come?

Sheffield City Council (SCC) declared a climate emergency 18 months ago and subsequently highlighted a report which said that to support global climate goals, the city could not exceed 16m tonnes of carbon emissions over the next two decades. The report’s authors said that based on 2016 emission levels, Sheffield would use that entire carbon budget within six years.

‘We’d like to be much further on’

“Are we where I’d want to be? No, not at all. We’d like to be much further on,” Mark Jones, SCC lead on Environment, Streetscene and Climate Change, told me.

Cllr Jones said the pandemic means a city centre Clean Air Zone, originally planned for early 2021, will almost certainly be delayed, and that a lack of government funding would prevent the Council helping bus companies and taxi drivers switch to cleaner vehicles.

"The air is better than it was, but it’s far from safe."

Though he outlined numerous challenges to installing more electric car charging points in Sheffield, Cllr Jones said the ultimate issue was “the discussion government isn't having – we can't have the same number of cars we have now.”

Local emissions from car use had dropped during lockdown, he said, but “it's still not enough. I don't feel […] the gains we’ve had as an artefact of COVID are sufficient to […] prevent climate change. We need more. We need better insulated houses, less energy-intensive modes of transport and heating mechanisms. We need to be less reliant on gas and petrochemicals.

"It’s going to be a seriously eye-watering endeavour. But we've got to do it."

Sheffield Citizens' Assembly on Climate

Cllr Jones also blamed coronavirus for the latest delay to the planned Citizens’ Assembly, the body meant to represent the public in Sheffield’s push towards “zero carbon”. The Assembly was initially scheduled for 2019, then June 2020. But Cllr Jones said the challenge of recruiting around 50 people from all 28 of Sheffield’s wards has been further complicated by uncertainty around livelihoods, jobs and schools reopening. He said the Citizens’ Assembly may not be ready until April 2021.

Speaking for campaign group Extinction Rebellion Sheffield, Nathan Strathdee said the activist group would continue to push SCC to conduct a Citizens’ Assembly. He pointed to the Council’s introduction of active travel measures, and trials of alternatives to the weedkiller glyphosate, as examples of success so far.

Strathdee also called on central government to only bail out coronavirus-hit companies that “won’t endanger our future” and said XR Sheffield plans to campaign against expansion of the Doncaster Sheffield and Leeds Bradford airports.

Despite the delay, Cllr Jones said incorporating additional knowledge from Sheffield residents through “citizen science” could also be instrumental in delivering the necessary environmental shift. On current SCC efforts, he pointed to the introduction of discounted e-bikes for local businesses, alongside electric vans which firms can borrow from the Council to trial the potential benefits.

"Those initiatives are to help spread awareness of what’s possible," he said. "That's what ‘build back better’ is all about. Going back to the way it was isn't enough. We've got come out the other side of this with better goals and better outcomes."

XR sticker air quality clean air pollution climate no credit needed

Extinction Rebellion sticker on a lamp post on London Road in Heeley, September 2019.

Building Blocks

Capitalising on existing strengths will be key to improving Sheffield’s environmental performance according to Professor Lenny Koh, Director of the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Energy, Environment and Sustainability (CEES).

She said Sheffield is home to world-class firms in renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, and civil nuclear technology. “If we can position Sheffield to be known for energy and manufacturing, especially doing it in a sustainable way, that will be its USP [unique selling point].”

Prof Koh said remote working would be “even more important” moving forward, but that local businesses may need support so they can use new technology to change their practices.

She also referenced central government’s slogan about “levelling up” regions across the country.

"If government is serious about investment and levelling up – especially linking this to the green recovery from COVID-19 – businesses, industries and their supply chains will need support.

We have a lot of businesses in Sheffield […] that are very carbon intensive. We can use this opportunity to bring down emissions, and to make businesses greener and more sustainable. That would be a win-win."

Technology ‘cannot do enough on its own’

Local campaigner Chris Broome said that “while Sheffield is good at developing impressive new technologies, such an approach cannot do enough on its own.”

“In line with the original Build Back Better campaign focus, a bigger share of our collective resources should go into public services, including health and social care and protecting the natural world.

“I think Sheffielders have got that message more than most and it brings us back to the national picture; we are promised enormous sums to build infrastructure but little to support the radical societal shift we need.

Build Back Better A4 poster web

Promotional Poster for the Build Back Better UK campaign.

www.buildbackbetteruk.org

“So Sheffield needs to be more rebellious. Luckily we are good at that too.”

Broome notes that Sheffield City Region (SCR) Mayor Dan Jarvis recently published a SCR Renewal Action Plan, a £1.7bn proposal to central government which includes recommendations around “upgrading transport links, funding projects that provide green growth and jobs through retrofitting, building flood defences and helping business decarbonise, reaching net zero emissions ahead of 2040 targets.”

Active Travel

Another clear way to cut carbon would be persuading commuters away from their cars. Emily Griffiths of Cycle Sheffield said Broomhall’s bollards and one-way systems have made the area safer for cyclists, but other additions elsewhere have been less helpful.

“Some streets have been made 20mph zones, but the road layout has stayed the same,” said Griffiths, adding that barriers across cycle paths by Ecclesall Road roundabout make the route harder for those steering a tandem, trailer or modified bicycle.

She said plans to develop roads should include cycling considerations such as raised kerbs or ‘wands’ by the edge of traffic lanes, not just painted lines which drivers can veer over.

Radical Change is Possible

Whatever initiatives are deployed, intelligent messaging which emphasises the benefits of change will surely be a key part of building back better.

Many ground-level improvements ultimately depend on everyday personal choices: walking or cycling where possible; remembering a reusable bag or cup. While these may seem like minor decisions, collectively they could have a profound impact on our local environment, including the air quality in our city, as well as strengthening public demand for political conviction and funding to embed new ideas and infrastructure.

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus crisis, it can feel harder than ever to grapple with the changes needed to save our environment, but we know that almost everyone in Sheffield has had to alter their daily routine during the last few months.

We’re certainly capable of adopting new habits – this time it could be for positive reasons.

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