Opinion

Suffolk County Council’s climate plans are greenwash

Suffolk County Councillors are refusing to accept the reality of the climate crisis. Sandy Martin, former Labour MP for Ipswich, argues that their plans amount to greenwash. He writes in a personal capacity.

UK government greenwash
Greenwash is local as well as national. Photo by Number 10 on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

So COP26 is over, and the fears of many of us, that the rhetoric would hugely outstrip any new action, are amply justified. There were a few very basic realities which every government attending COP ought to have had in the back, front and middle of their minds:

  • IF we do not stop burning fossil fuels THEN the global temperature will rise to levels at which life will become extremely difficult over large parts of the Earth.
  • IF we don’t increase the overall amount of global vegetation THEN the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will continue to increase. 
  • IF we don’t transfer some capital from wealthy to poorer countries to enable them to develop more sustainably, THEN the global cost to those richer countries will far outstrip the cost of any help they could have given, and the cost to the planet will be catastrophic.

Instead of this, we got “negotiation” and “compromise”. The compromise on coal, for instance, will see China’s use of coal continue to RISE until 2030, whereas in order to prevent catastrophic temperature rise we need to start phasing out coal altogether NOW. 

Our government faces both ways

Our own government is no better. We had declarations of intent on climate targets, while at the very same time refusing to rule out the Cambo oil field or the Cumbrian coal mine, and continuing with massive investment in a coal mine in Mozambique.

The attitude of the UK Government should be no surprise – all the targets and declarations in the world are pointless unless governments act accordingly, and the recent budget made the Conservatives’ priorities only too clear:

  • reduce internal air fares but do nothing to reduce train fares
  • freeze petrol duty but do nothing to reduce bus fares
  • no effective national programme for insulation
  • no additional support for solar panels
  • a tiny and pathetic programme for the air-sourced heat pumps which are supposedly going to replace gas-fired heating in homes.

Suffolk plans too little, too late

But it’s not just the national government which is talking some of the talk but spectacularly failing to walk any of the walk. On Tuesday 9th November, with a great deal of self-congratulatory fanfare, Suffolk County Council announced its new corporate carbon-reduction fund for its own buildings. “£12.8 million to decarbonise” the press release headline stated. Yet nowhere in the entire puff was it made clear that this is proposed investment over a 9-year period. That would work out at £1.4 million per year if the money were to be spread out evenly. 

But even that is misleading, because at least half of the money is proposed for the last 3 years of the period, years which in reality the current administration at Suffolk County Council can only speculate about anyway. What they are actually proposing is approximately £1 million of extra investment per year over the next 6 years. To headline that as £12.8 million is, I believe, deliberately deceptive.

Let’s put that £1 million in some sort of context. The County already spends £3.5 million per year on capital maintenance of its buildings. The annual fuel cost in 2019/20 – the last year during which the buildings were in normal use – was around £7.4 million. The financial savings from the proposed very limited investment programme are projected to be almost a million pounds per year by 2030.

A self defeating plan

The ridiculous thing is that, quite apart from the imperative to achieve net zero by 2030, the County Council stands to gain financially from this investment too. If they doubled the amount of investment they could bring forward the date at which the investment was able to pay for itself. But far more importantly, they would be able to radically reduce the amount of fossil fuel being burned to heat the County’s buildings, and act as a genuine beacon to organisations and businesses in Suffolk.

Instead of which, better ventilation and insulation projects for half of the County’s buildings are to be delayed until “prior to April 2026” – because an additional £2.5 million investment hasn’t been found for the immediate future. 

Additional on-site energy generation (mainly solar panels) will also be delayed, for the sake of a further £2 million. The £12.8 million is definitely needed, and the projects that it could be spent on have been identified, but delaying most of the spend until after 2026 will fail to address the urgency of the climate crisis.

A grubby compromise

I think I know what has happened. There are Council officers working in Suffolk who are very well aware of the seriousness of the climate emergency and are determined to do everything they can to address it. 

A very clear and comprehensive report has been produced showing just how that could be achieved. And I am sure that there are County Councillors – including Conservative cabinet members – who would secretly support the level of investment needed to make a radical difference. But there are still far too many Conservative Councillors, and MPs, and Party members, who refuse to accept the reality that is facing us. Just like COP26, this Council plan is a grubby compromise.

The crisis is upon us, we can no longer afford compromise.

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