Theresa May has recently announced a new law that will mean the UK must cut its carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Emissions from all of aspects of society will have to be cut completely, or they will need to be offset by tree planting or carbon capture technologies. This means we need to stop burning polluting fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas.
Bristol has built itself a strong reputation for being a ‘green’ city. It was one of the first places in the UK to declare a climate emergency earlier this year and it has set itself an even more ambitious carbon emissions target than the Government – it wants to be carbon neutral by 2030.
A radical shift is now required to turn these good intentions into reality. It will only happen if cutting carbon emissions is placed at the centre of decision making. That means re-framing every decision we make and changing the debate. It’s starting to happen across the UK – earlier this month the Welsh Government said it will not build the M4 relief road, citing the impact on the environment as one of the main reasons.
For Bristol, the stand-out project that this applies to is the proposed expansion of Bristol Airport. This is a perfect example of how dialogue is currently centred on economic growth, jobs and inward investment. But we need to broaden the debate and look instead at how reducing carbon intensive habits creates more economic opportunities, improves health and quality of life.
Brave decisions are needed now and this major project is in no way compatible with the Government’s new zero emissions target. As individuals, we need to start voting with our feet and choosing holidays that are closer to home.
It’s no secret that Bristol’s traffic problem is one of the city’s biggest challenges, so tackling this is central to achieving a net zero emissions target. There’s no silver bullet, rather a combination of measures that will consist of electric vehicles and investment in the accompanying infrastructure, a more reliable and cheaper public transport system, and more walking and cycling.
Of course, this all requires investment so a Clean Air Zone that charges for the most heavily polluting vehicles is essential, as well as support from the central Government.
And what about our homes and offices? Homes will need to be fitted with ‘smart’ systems to help control heat and power use, as well as improvements in insulation and glazing. The Government’s advisors on climate change, the Committee on Climate Change, has said that developers should be banned from connecting new homes to the gas grid from 2025.
While the Government hasn’t gone that far, it is banning gas boilers in new homes from 2025. This is signalling the end of fossil fuel heating systems that will be replaced by biomass systems and other renewable heating sources.
The infrastructure for this is already happening in Bristol. The city’s Heat Network is now underway delivering a new network of underground pipes that will deliver low-carbon heat and energy across the city. The City Leap project is genuinely ground-breaking. Its aim is to deliver a smart, interconnected energy system for Bristol to include renewable energy from wind, solar and ground source heat pumps, energy efficiency measures, electric vehicles and smart energy systems.
The physical landscape in and around Bristol will also change as we move towards net zero emissions. Tree planting needs to dramatically increase, as trees play an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Therefore we will see a much bigger tree canopy across the city in years to come. A fifth of agricultural land will need to shift to woodland so this will affect some of the more rural areas around the city.
And of course lifestyle changes need to happen. It’s about looking at what we eat and reducing red meat, how we source our food, what we wear, where we holiday, how and where we shop and how we manage our waste.
Bristol is already pioneering a zero waste project and there are several zero waste shops across the city and this is only going to increase in popularity as people scrutinise their shopping habits.
While these big societal shifts can seem overwhelming, it’s worth remembering that these changes are beneficial not only to the planet but also to health and quality of life. A net zero emissions Bristol will be a happier and healthier place to live.
Angela Terry is a South West based environmental scientist and founder of climate action website One Home.