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Sheffield should meet its zero-carbon promise through new, radical decision-making

The climate crisis is a crisis of democracy. We need more democracy to support, scrutinise and strengthen decision-making, in Sheffield and everywhere, argues Minesh Parekh.

City centre panorama 5
Rachel Rae Photography

Last month’s floods were yet another reminder that the climate crisis is not an abstract issue for future generations to face, but a crisis of the here and now—one that affects every one of us, and will do for the foreseeable future.

And yet when it comes to decision-making on the climate we’re entirely dependent on the whims of elites, if and when they choose to take interest, and accordingly we’re limited by the extent of their ambitions.

Beyond ticking a ballot every few years we have no real means of saying what form climate action should take in the UK, and how our surroundings should be changed. In other words: there is no democratic oversight over the management of this planetary crisis.

The climate crisis is a crisis of democracy

It’s precisely because we haven’t had enough democratic control over our economy that we have to confront the climate crisis now. For too long we have been led by the decisions of the wealthy and powerful, whether those seated in parliament or leading multinational corporations, made to suit their own interests. The pursuit of profit has continually come before social and environmental justice.

Under our 1980s municipal socialist council, with its publicly-owned 10p buses, Sheffield was the least congested city in the UK. The Thatcher government’s forced deregulation of buses, and the subsequent rise in private car ownership and use, is part of the reason why more than 500 Sheffield residents die every year from air pollution; the pursuit of shareholder profit is prioritised over the health of the public and the planet. This is, literally, unsustainable.

Because the climate crisis affects us all, everyone must get a say over how we respond. It follows then that we need new models of political decision-making at local and national levels to facilitate this.

In other countries we are seeing incredible experiments in mass democratic participation. Porto Alegre in Brazil uses participatory budget-making to let ordinary people discuss and decide what the city’s priorities should be, and how its budgets should be spent. This has not only led to a reprioritisation of spending to improve public services and infrastructure, but also led to residents voting to increase taxes after they introduced more public control and oversight over how public funds were spent.

Public trust in governments’ abilities to tackle the climate emergency is incredibly low. The majority of people in the UK think they are more concerned about the crisis than the government is, and that it will fail to meet its 2050 net zero target. And they’re right to worry, because we’re on course to fail. Our normal ways of working need to change.

What we can do in Sheffield

Sheffield’s Green City Partnership Board was a Council body set up to encourage citywide partnership working to reduce emissions. It was made up of representatives from organisations from across the city, including the universities, the Chamber of Commerce, Amey, Veolia and campaigning organisations like the South Yorkshire Climate Alliance. It ceased to exist shortly after last May’s council elections, and—with the introduction of Sheffield Council’s committee system next year—is likely to be replaced by a new body responsible for co-ordinating citywide climate action

Sheffield has pledged to be a zero carbon city by 2030, a deadline that is both ecologically and morally necessary. Without a doubt, we will need city structures in place to oversee decarbonisation and help us rise to this significant challenge.

If the Green City Partnership Board were to be re-founded, we would have an opportunity to build a body that can champion our city's green transition. It could be a network of Council departments, community organisations and the city’s anchor institutions—with clear targets like enacting the Arup report—and a duty for each partner to report back on their progress. It could then be used as a springboard for climate-oriented community wealth building, leveraging public funds to support climate action by making plans for decarbonisation a prerequisite of receiving public contracts.

But we could also go so much further than this by embedding principles of mass democratic participation into any new structures. Rather than restricting the board to invited partners, it could take inspiration from Sheffield’s newly-founded Local Area Committees, and the participatory budgeting of Porto Allegre, by devolving the power to decarbonise our city to local people.

Imagine a Sheffield climate assembly that could choose to invest in restoring our peatlands, growing tree-lined streets or developing local capacity for renewables. With the support and co-operation of anchor institutions like the universities and hospitals (some of the largest landowners in the city), it could support rewilding efforts at scale, or put solar panels on the roofs of every municipal building.

Last month's IPCC report was bleak but clear; the actions we take over the next few years to tackle the climate crisis are pivotal. Devolving power and deepening democracy can help make sure that the rapid climate action—which is consistently ranked as being amongst people’s highest priorities—is finally put into practice.

Put simply, radical, participatory democracy is our best weapon against the climate crisis.

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