Cllr Tom Hayes writes about Oxford City Council’s Zero Carbon summit

This was originally published on 8th February 2021

In the face of impossible odds, each of us is meeting the challenges created by the pandemic. It can feel overwhelming and never-ending, but we are holding on. Why? Each of us, in our lives, is doing what the science has been telling us we must do. We are overcoming setbacks and pushing through doubt to protect life and live the love we feel for everyone we desperately want to stay well and safe.

When there is so much going on, and the virus is damaging the lives and economies of those around us, how many of us really have the energy to hear about the rise of new challenges? When one such challenge is climate change, and so many of us have already felt it was too big, too global, just too much, for decades now, why should we talk about climate change?

Climate change is complex but, in one way, it is simple. Knowing what you know now about the loss and the isolation of coronavirus, would you do things differently if you had the chance? Would you want the country to time travel back to this time last year, when the first cases were being recorded, to use the knowledge of today to do things differently? Would you want to plot a different and shorter route out?

Well, with climate change, we know what is coming if we do not take the right kind of action right here, right now. But, moreover, the world is changing because of the pandemic. How we live, how we work, how we enjoy leisure will be changing and, to make a better life for ourselves and our family, we can make the necessary changes in ways which protect our environment.

The Government has already set a course. The UK is the first major economy to pass laws to end the country’s contribution to global warming by 2050. This is a big deal, but we believe we can go further and faster here in Oxford.

Last week Oxford City Council hosted a Zero Carbon Oxford summit that brought together leaders of our major Oxford institutions and businesses to discuss their decarbonisation plans and set a vision for reaching net zero as a city before 2050.  Those involved signed a Zero Carbon Oxford Charter committing to playing our respective parts in bringing about a net zero city. These key organisations will form a new Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership, together – with hope – with many others, to drive action.

From talking to the people that I represent, I know there’s an ingrained scepticism about politicians announcing ambitious dates and targets. It can feel like it is showy, designed for flashy headlines, divorced from what needs to happen.

We are very deliberately doing things different here.  We wanted our approach to be ambitious but realistic— and determined by the science.

In the last year or so we have built an accurate understanding of the sources of our citywide emissions, so we can target action appropriately. In recent months we have appointed Professor Nick Eyre, Professor of Energy and Climate Policy, University of Oxford, as our scientific advisor—someone who has previously supported the climate response of this Council, but also the academic world, the Government, and the UN.

We will work towards our zero-carbon ambition with five-yearly carbon budgets, and these will be transparent and subject to scrutiny and challenge. Professor Eyre will support Oxford City Council and the Partnership. In his role, he embodies the foundations of science and democracy that underpin our response to climate change—we will not be forcing change, we will always be seeking to build a consensus for change with businesses, citizens, and organisations, always informed by the evidence.

The new Zero Carbon Oxford Partnership will build on the work of the Low Carbon Oxford Partnership, which was launched in 2010 with the aim of reducing carbon emissions in Oxford by 40% by 2020 on 2005 levels. The city is on track to achieve this target, with absolute emissions having already reduced by 38% between 2005 and 2018 (2018 being the latest available dataset) and with per capita emissions down by 40.8% over the same period. That achievement is down, substantially, to many of the organisations which will comprise the Zero Carbon Oxford partnership.

The City Council has paved the way for the Summit this week by detailing our own road to Zero Carbon by 2030 and net zero this year. Ours is a scientifically based, robust action plan, and we have just secured £10.9m of investment in the Council’s decarbonisation efforts, so that we can meet a third of our funding gap to becoming Zero Carbon by 2030 in this year. In this year Oxford rolls out our Zero Emission Zone to restrict polluting vehicles in the city centre and launches the UK’s largest EV charging hub, as well as several major policies.

Together, we can build a more competitive economy in Oxford, give our workers more pay, and enhance our prosperity by striving for Oxford’s zero carbon future.

We have already shown that this city can meet any challenge. Over the next few years we’re going to show that yet again.