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Activists gather to demand clean air. Photo by Friends of the Earth Scotland (Creative Commons).

Following pressure from the international school strike movement, Extinction Rebellion, and other long-established campaign groups such as Sheffield Climate Alliance, Sheffield City Council declared a 'Climate Emergency' on 6 February last year.

Nobody quite knows what a 'climate emergency' response entails, so this regular report will look back on recent happenings to try and figure it out.

15 January

We start the year with news that the government stepped in to rescue the UK airline Flybe by deferring the payment of their Air Passenger Duty. Rumours persist about the government taking a stake in the company or extending loans.

If we educate people properly we could be on to something good

24 January

Following Extinction Rebellion's occupation of London last June, government ministers agreed to meet one of their three demands and committed to holding Citizen's Climate Assemblies to advise on climate policy. This was the first of four weekends over which ordinary citizens gather to decide how Britain should reach net-zero by 2050. Covering all aspects of decarbonisation, from heating our homes to the future of agriculture, the final recommendations will go to six Select Committees of the House of Commons for them to develop specific policies.

Some reports sound provisionally promising:

I asked Marc from Newcastle if he considered himself an environmentalist. Marc laughed: "No, no. I'm the typical person who would change their iPhone every year, car every three years... just pick up what I wanted from the supermarket. But after all this (information from the assembly) you start questioning. It's hard because everyone's going to want to keep the same standard of living - not make massive changes. But we'll have to. So it's going to be interesting how we get to that happy medium. If we educate people properly we could be on to something good."

Having gone to such effort and expense to discover what could reasonably be called the 'will of the people' through a detailed and deliberate method, it would not make much sense to ignore the outcomes completely. Though quite how much influence the outcomes will end up having is anyone's guess.

Worst case scenario, the recommendations are ignored with that work going to waste. This would indicate that methods of deliberative democracy alone are no substitute for political movements that sustain demands for radical action long enough to upend entrenched interests and enable wider cultural shifts. In a best case scenario, the government introduces more ambitious climate policy in the lead-up to our hosting of COP 26 later this year and the citizen's assembly can provide convenient cover for any unpopular decisions.

27 January

Approximately 71 days after declaring a Climate Emergency, Sheffield City Region approved a £5 million loan for the expansion of Doncaster Sheffield Airport. This follows a £3.5 million loan in January 2019 for expanded car parking. This latest loan is part of wider plans that include building the airport's own railway station and an aim to double passenger numbers over the next ten years.

Regardless of the merits of this individual project the message this sends is a complete shamelessness and lack of sincerity around the climate emergency. Given that airport owners the Peel Group plan on repaying the loan within five years and have pledged to match funding only if passenger numbers reach 2.5 million, it's difficult to believe there are no better uses of public money.

Failing transport operators have been a recurring theme in Britain over recent years

Bristol has recently cancelled their planned airport expansion based on environmental impacts - whether local leaders here will show the same backbone looks doubtful.

29 January

A few weeks after it was announced their chief executive received an 18% payrise from £1.1m to £1.34 despite deteriorating performance, Arriva is finally stripped of its Northern franchise. While bringing the franchise under public control is a step in the right direction, this alone is no panacea. It is obvious major investment is needed to make the railways an attractive and financially viable alternative to private cars.

30 January

In what was incorrectly reported as a week of free bus travel, First offered a buy-one-get-one-free offer on a weekly bus ticket as compensation for particularly appalling recent service. Here's hoping Dan Jarvis's Bus Review surfaces sometime soon and brings change when it does.

Failing transport operators have been a recurring theme in Britain over recent years. Having mentioned Northern, First and Flybe in January alone it now seems particularly acute. Only when pushed to absolute breaking point does the government reluctantly acknowledge that mobility should take priority over shareholder profits - the Flybe bailout was needed to prevent islands around Britain becoming isolated and the misery inflicted on commuters by Northern's poor service eventually became intolerable.

Britain's incredibly inefficient transport systems are not inevitable. It's perfectly possible to move people and goods around in more equitable ways - many other countries manage it.

Our poor performance is partly down to bad planning and underinvestment but ,ultimately, there's an unwillingness to set prices at a level that fairly reflect their whole-system impacts. Whether this be in terms of taxing the worst contributors to congestion and pollution, or subsidising commercially 'unviable' yet socially essential routes. This is why declining bus services and the increasing isolation of rural communities is accepted as an unfortunate fact of life while airports are expanding to enable the growth of the most polluting mode of transport.

The ecological reality of Climate Emergency is inescapable

Globally, the richest 10% are responsible for around half of all emissions and the poorest half of humanity is responsible for just 10% of all emissions. While it is hard to imagine this government changing things for the better, you'd hope that in the medium-term continued proliferation of private jets will prove socially unacceptable. It's not done in good faith, but even many tabloid newspapers usually keen to dismiss climate change note the stark inequity and are quick to point out the hypocrisy of jet-setting celebrities who profess alarm at rising emissions.

The ecological reality of Climate Emergency is inescapable, how this becomes reflected in social reality remains the vital question. The answer is still up to us.

If you would like a little less conversation and a lot more action please, check out Sheffield Climate Alliance's series of upcoming events or come along to Sheffield XR weekly meetings at Union Street Cafe. Let's enjoy the ride together.

The Sheffield Sustainability Network are also having their launch event for climate conscious businesses, charities and organisations on 27 February.

Jake Helliwell

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