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"Sustainability is environment, equity and economy": How to stop climate change in South Yorkshire – or at least make it much less bad

For a sneak peek into How to Stop Climate Change, a Festival of Debate panel coming up next week, Rei Takver talks with Richard Sulley of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures about what it would take here in South Yorkshire.

City centre panorama park hill
Rachel Rae Photography

Last week, the Guardian reported that hundreds of top climate scientists around the world expect global heating to shoot to at least 2.5°C by the end of the century, way past the 1.5°C of the Paris Agreement. At 3°C of warming, cities like Shanghai, Miami and The Hauge will be underwater, and at least two billion people will have to move from areas that will become uninhabitable for humans.

While those predictions are bleak, as part of the Guardian’s report, Dr Henri Waisman, a lead author on the IPCC report, explained that it’s not as black or white as either stopping climate change or not stopping it: “Every tenth of a degree [of heating] matters a lot – this means it is still useful to continue the fight.”

So how do we continue that fight in South Yorkshire? To learn more, I spoke with Richard Sulley, a Senior Research Associate at the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures based at the University of Sheffield, in the run-up to a Festival of Debate event titled How to Stop Climate Change.

Here we are in South Yorkshire in 2024. How is climate change affecting us here, now?

In recent years, we have seen a significant number of what would have previously been considered ‘freak’ weather events in South Yorkshire. 40°C temperatures in city centres – previously unheard of. The rainfall, and the unpredictability of the rainfall, that we’ve had is an effect of climate change as well, because warmer air can hold more moisture.

We’ve had flood events in Doncaster and Rotherham more often than normal. Rotherham Central Station has been underwater several times. Even moorland burning can come down to times we’ve had more periods of dry weather during hotter summers. These events are matching the kinds of things we’re told we’re more likely to see in South Yorkshire as climate change gets worse.

South Yorkshire infrastructure isn’t designed to cope with heavy rainfall or high temperatures, so the weather might affect you because you can’t easily travel to your work – because public transport isn’t working properly, or the street temperatures are too high.

We might see more weather-related deaths. We might also see an increase in migration – people needing to leave where they live who might come to South Yorkshire if we are less impacted.

How green in south yorkshire FOTE
Friends of the Earth

Your talk is called How to Stop Climate Change, which is a very ambitious title. What kinds of things can we do locally to help stop it?

South Yorkshire faces a number of massive challenges. When you compare us to our neighbouring regions, we have poorer outcomes, we have lower wages, we have fewer businesses. We perform poorly. There is historical underfunding of South Yorkshire. We don’t get our fair share and we never have. So there is a temptation to say we can’t do anything green because we need to address these issues.

But the way we address those issues is realising it’s the interconnectedness of all things. Sustainability is environment, equity and economy. To create a sustainable South Yorkshire, you tackle all these things at once.

A successful South Yorkshire economy isn’t necessarily about bringing in huge multinational corporations who employ a thousand people at minimum wage and take all the profits of it. Chasing the economic dreams of the past isn’t necessarily going to solve our problems. If we started looking at our economy, our wellbeing and our environment in a different way, the problems start to solve themselves.

There is a vision for South Yorkshire where we look at everything differently, but it will take some strong local leadership to do that, and that’s not an easy thing for people to do.

What might be a different way of looking at our environment, equity and economy?

I was formerly the Net Zero Project Director for South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority, but I think you should do net zero projects by accident of other things. If you start to think about, 'Well, let’s spend money on decarbonisation,' you’ll get nowhere because there is no money. But if you improve the local economy and give people better educations, a better chance, better health – you’ll also address climate change. Stop thinking that economy sits separately to environment, sits separately to social justice. They don’t. They’re the same thing.

If you look at things like the health of people, for instance, if you have a better environment, you have healthier people, and healthier people can work more. We have one of the highest rates of people not economically active. So if you’re a local politician and you want to look at it in terms of economy, and how to address those issues, you can do that by addressing things like the local environment, the green space, the leisure which will have an economic impact. You don’t have to dress it up necessarily as a decarbonisation project.

Are there any big issues getting in the way of this vision of a sustainable South Yorkshire?

The existing systems that we have in South Yorkshire, everywhere, nationally, globally, are not fixing this problem of climate change – otherwise it would be fixed. So there’s a recognition that we need to look at new systems. I am more and more convinced that that is local.

Some of our democratic systems don’t work. They don’t give the representation that they need. You see in the South Yorkshire mayoral elections significant votes for Green candidates. In the local elections in Sheffield, the Green vote went up but the number of seats they had on the council stayed the same. So in terms of representative democracy, it doesn’t work.

Our systems of top-down funding from central government also don’t work to deliver for the needs of local people. They don’t put enough power in the hands of local decision-makers, and that’s not then being translated to power in the hands of local communities.

Once you explain to local people what needs to be done, it’s amazing what they can come up with. In Sheffield we have some fantastic examples. I was at The Green Estate, a brilliant example of urban regeneration that’s working with local communities up at Manor Lodge, behind Park Hill. On land that was once a wasteland, that had something like 150 burned out cars on it, there is now public greenspace, amenity, growing projects. They’re launching small spin-off companies from the work they’re doing there. And there’s hope. The Green Estate is showing a vision of what a local community can do.

For anyone wanting to do more for climate change in South Yorkshire, are there any local groups they should check out?

There are some great local groups here. Here are a few to consider joining:

Learn more

To continue the conversation, the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures will be partnering with the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre to host a free panel, How to Stop Climate Change, at the Festival of Debate. Sign up for free to attend on Tuesday 21 May, 6-7:30pm at The Diamond.

Access info

The Diamond is wheelchair accesible and has accessible toilets on all levels, mostly near the lifts in the corners of the building.

There are gender-neutral toilets on level 0, including an accessible toilet.

The venue also offers a deaf messaging service (DMS), which sends a notification by text message when the fire alarm sounds.

A UCard will not be needed to access the building for the event.

More access information is available here.

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