[00:00:18.790] - John Bates (Podcast Chair)

Hello. Welcome to the Green Business Programme podcast. Climate change is a massive global issue which has united people, businesses and countries. Only together can we mitigate the worrying damage done to the environment and our life support systems. Commentary is committed to tackling climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions for the city. The challenge of reducing the city's carbon emissions, of course, is significant and it will be helped by everyone in Coventry to help us all get there. One important step was taken in November 2021, when senior leaders from organisations across the city formed Coventry's Climate Change Board. I'm John Bates and in this episode, we will find out more about the board and its members, and also a bit more about how Coventry is planning to navigate its journey towards net zero. Let me introduce our guests. Board members Margot James, the former Minister of Culture, Communications and Creative Industries and Executive Chair of the Warwickshire Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, and Suzanne Ward. Suzanne Is, Area Environment Manager for the Environment Agency, covering West Midlands, Combined Authority and Warwickshire. We'll also be joined a bit later by Councillor Jim O'Boyle, who is the Vice Chair of the Board and Cabinet Member responsible for Jobs Regeneration and Climate Change at the Council.

[00:01:53.380] - John Bates

So, warm welcome, Margot and Suzanne. Thank you very much for sparing the time to come on the podcast. Margot, if I could start with you, please. So, you've been selected to chair the board and it's met a few times already. Why did you want to be part of it and what do you see as the main objectives?

[00:02:12.490] - Margot James

Thanks very much for the introduction. Well, John, I was delighted to be approached with this opportunity of chairing the Climate Change Board for the City. I thought, really, one thing I was so keen on doing it is because my role at the University of Warwick, chairing the Warwick Manufacturing Group, involves me in a huge amount of work, most of which is dedicated to helping industry achieve net zero by 2050. And some of the targets are more ambitious than that even. So, I felt I could bring a lot of expertise to the board and also learn a lot about something that's very close to my heart by sharing it as well. Because one of the great things about the board is the City Council has done a great job, as you alluded to in your instructions. It's gone a long way, it's further along this road than most councils, but to get to its most vigorous target that you mentioned, 55% reduction by 2030, it really does need to work in partnership with the other parts of the city that are going to make this happen or not. And I'm thinking private sector, the public utilities, the voluntary sector and residents and citizens.

[00:03:26.400] - Margot James

So, the City Council did a great job, really, with the things that were under its direct control. It now needs to embrace partner organisations and I felt I was in a good position with my previous experience in government and at the university to assist them in that effort, which I think is extremely important.

[00:03:44.680] – John Bates

So, Margot, you referenced your work with the Warwickshire Manufacturing Group. I just wonder whether you could tell us a little bit more about that, because there's a lot of work going on in terms of addressing climate change there. So just share a little bit of that.

[00:04:00.220] - Margot James

Yes, essentially, you can only cut carbon where carbon is, and 29% of our emissions are related to transport. And I would say that WMG's work is at least 50% on dedicated towards the reduction of transport emissions, given that, I knew that I could contribute, because that is the work that we are doing at WMG very successfully. We're leading the charge towards the electrification of transport and that will be very beneficial for the city. Obviously, we'll be able to help electrify the big vehicles, cars, in a way that also builds employment opportunities for people who live locally. So, it's a very important contribution, I think, that we've got to make at WMG.

[00:04:51.570] – John Bates

And certainly in a previous episode of this podcast, we've talked about some of the initiatives that are underway around transport. So there's lots of synergy there.

[00:05:00.510] – John Bates

Yes, that's really good. I wonder if you could tell us about the composition of the board and how many members there are and perhaps the selection process and how it was decided that they should become members.

[00:05:12.060] - Margot James

Right. We're quite a large board, but we've got about 15 members. They've been targeted really for the expertise and the support that they can bring. As I can bring the support from WMG. Members like E.On, which are headquartered here in Coventry, can bring huge expertise into the reduction of emissions overall, particularly from the energy sector. And also domestic housing, probably next to transport buildings and housing is the next greatest emitter. So we are very pleased to have E.On’s expertise and they are very hands on. They are really allowing us to use their resources to help the City reduce its emissions, which is fantastic. And then we have other members and all things like utilities, we have the NHS, we have the ambulance service, we have police force, so we've got all the public sector engagement. And if you think that, for example, I mentioned how important transport emissions are to get reduced, well, 5% of journeys undertaken across the city are health related, so that's a big chunk. And then, of course, the NHS are heavy energy users with a lot of the equipment they use. And so we want to get their expertise involved, how they're doing, and that's the same for all of the contributing members, really.

[00:06:33.880] - Margot James

Community Building Society is a member from the private sector. They've already hit their initial target of being carbon free in terms of an independent entity. They've got some way to go meeting other targets, but let's have their best practise. A lot of it is also about sharing best practise. So when we've got good performance, like Coventry Building Society, we want to other parts of the city to learn from their experience. So, a lot of it's about that. And then there are organisations representing the area of conservation and diversity. We have the Canal and Waterways Trust. We have the Coventry and Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. All of these things are vital to the way in which we reduce our carbon footprint. And incidentally, they are very important ways of reaching the wider public as well, because, for instance, the Wildlife trusts have thousands of members. So, through their offices and other organisations that belong to the board will be able to engage directly with the public, which is vital to the success of our mission.

[00:07:42.960] – John Bates

So, was it easy to get their involvement or was there a little bit of twisting of arms required?

[00:07:48.820] - Margot James

I mean, in general, people have been really willing to step up and that's really pleasing. We've had a few hiccups because particularly with the voluntary sector, they are short of personnel, resources and so forth. They can't afford to spend themselves too thin. There's no shortage of willingness, but sometimes there is a shortage of resource, which we obviously have to patch up in some other way.

[00:08:14.010] - Margot James

Now, I don't need to tell the residents of Coventry, but of course, the city's got a strong history of inventiveness and creativity, with a real strong track record of adapting to change. What difference do you think that the board will be able to make, adapting to the challenges of climate change?

[00:08:32.170] - Margot James

Well, I think the communications and the public engagement is very important to this because obviously all climate change in the end involves a degree of behavioural change, some of which is very easy to bring on board. But sometimes old habits die hard and also sometimes there can be an upfront cost. I mean, at the moment, switching to an electric vehicle usually carries an upfront cost and we are working at WMG with partners to remove that cost differential, but we haven't quite got there yet. There are important challenges that we need to be aware of and I think that we are well on the way with the support of the sort of partners we have got in getting there. I'll give you an example that the City Council is so ahead in this area, as I've already alluded to, but they commissioned WMG five years ago to develop a brilliant carbon-free light rail solution to some of the issues thrown up by public transport. And we're very, very nearly at the point at which we can demonstrate that and the safety of that vehicle and the track on which it will be laid.

[00:09:50.740] - Margot James

There will be less and less excuse to use your private vehicle, your private car, to undertake short journeys. By the time the City Council and the university have perfected some of these other transport options, like the very light rail option, like other forms of smaller personal mobility. They will be coming in for the city to benefit from within the next five years, some of them within the next two to three years, then there will be an important challenge to us all to encourage people to actually use these options. I have no doubt that we will be successful because they are so attractive to use, but they do require engagement with the public so that the public not only understand the importance of using these alternatives to cars, but also the benefits to them personally and so doing.

[00:10:41.210] – John Bates

Okay, so Suzanne, I'll bring you in now, if I may. So, the way that things have been organised is that there are five pathways and we'll put the details of the pathways in the notes that go with this podcast. But you've agreed to lead the Resilient Development Working Group. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that work involves?

[00:11:02.850] - Suzanne Ward

Yes. Thank you, John. We know climate change is already happening. We've seen it over the last few years where we've either had too much water, too little water, the temperatures are increasing, and various things around the world, and particularly just in the UK itself. And so it's really important that we learn how to adapt, to reduce, obviously, the carbon and therefore the impact on the environment. But it's already happening. So, we as a society need to learn to live with those changes that are already happening. So being part of that and being able to do practical things on the ground, working with businesses, working across Coventry and with partners, the idea is that we can actually start to make some practical, adaptions and cultural changes because I think Margot mentioned culturally, we have to change the way we think about things. We've always thought about water as being this abundant resource in the UK that we could just turn on the tap and it will always be there. This year proved that that is not the case.

[00:12:14.370] – John Bates

I mean, that is one of the issues for the Environment Agency. It's almost at some point you've got too much and at another point you haven't got enough. So just talk a little bit about the issues that the Environment Agency is facing.

[00:12:26.140] - Suzanne Ward

So, in January, February, we had far too much water. Some of our rivers were actually at the highest level they've ever been in the country. That caused heartache and absolute devastation for the families and the communities that got flooded out, and sometimes for some of them that's been multiple times over multiple years. And then we are roll forward, what, six, seven months, we've had months now of the lowest rate for recorded levels in the UK and England. We've got the Agency has now got ten of its 14 areas are actually declared draught. Wales has declared draught and there is no foreseeable rain in the forecast going forward.

[00:13:28.080] – John Bates

And that's a real issue for the Agency to manage, isn't it?

[00:13:31.080] - Suzanne Ward

It is, because we work with the water companies to manage that precious resource called water. And we have to balance the needs of all of us in society. So, we want to be able to drink, we need to have a tap on, businesses need to operate, but we have to also protect the environment, because if we destroy it, it won't come back. And much of our environment relies on having a healthy water.

[00:13:58.910] – John Bates

If I can perhaps put a question to both of you. Perhaps Margot, first, compared with other cities, what would you say that's unique about Coventry and the action and the steps that it's taking to combat climate change?

[00:14:15.480] – Margot James

Well, I think one of the most important things about the city is that it got onto this issue early. As you mentioned in your introduction, John, it had already reduced its emissions by 27%, I think it was, by 2014. And that is way ahead of most other cities of its size around the country. It's one of the first two or three city authorities to have appointed a climate change board to scrutinise its efforts and progress towards the next range of targets. So, I think that country is well placed because of that. So, it's always good to be joining something where you think there's a good chance of success. And the other thing I think about the city is that it is the home of the transport industry and therefore it attracts investment globally into its transport networks and its manufacturing industry, a lot of which is geared to the supply chain, to the automotive sector. And it's got manufacturing here geared to that sector, which is of itself legally required to change very rapidly from 2030. They will not be allowed to sell new cars with internal combustion engines. And that really focuses the mind, because if you think about the lead time, from drawing boards to actually rolling off the production line and into the showrooms, that's a few years, so we haven't got long.

[00:15:50.790] – Margot James

So they're very dedicated. They've commissioned us to do a lot of the research involved in the electrochemistry around the battery side of the innovation. And that means the City is very well placed to hit its targets, even its new targets, earlier than most cities of a similar size. And so, there's a lot of things I think are related to our heritage, but very much, if not more so, related to our current and future industry.

[00:16:26.280] – John Bates

So you're working alongside business and trying to help business. Perhaps you could talk about the challenges that business faces.

[00:16:39.600] - Margot James

Well, business face the challenges of depending on where they are located, they could be a risk of flooding and therefore that really puts an additional pressure and costs on businesses. They can also be if they have high energy or high water uses, again, those have a big impact on them, particularly if that's impacted going forward. But one of the big things the Coventry has been really good at has been a pioneer about environmental net gain and around that ability for sustainable growth. So, it's pioneered that whole ability that, yes, we absolutely want to have development here, but actually when you're developing, we want you to understand your impact, environmental impact, and then actually mitigate it plus a bit more. So actually, we're making it country more sustainable to the changes that are already happening.

[00:17:30.490] – John Bates

Lovely, thank you very much to both of you and listeners, if you want to find out more about the work of the board, you can have a look for details on the website and all the contact details are there. We'll put those in the show notes as well. Thank you.

[00:17:44.050] - Margot James

Thank you very much, John.

[00:17:45.250] – Suzanne Ward

Thank you, John.

[00:17:51.110] – John Bates

Okay, so I've just moved down the corridor to a different committee room and I'm joined by Councillor Jim O'Boyle, who is the vice chair of the board and Cabinet Member responsible for Jobs for Generation and Climate Change at the Council. Jim, thank you very much for sparing the time to come on the podcast. You were obviously instrumental in getting the board established, why do you think it was important to do that?

[00:18:17.010] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

Well, my role as a Cabinet Member of the City Council is to bring forward proposals to tackle climate change in our city. But I know that as a council we can't do that on our own. I mean, there's always a school of thought that said, councils can solve all known problems to man, but the truth is, we can't solve. All I want to do is bring together different partners, businesses, experts in this field who can bring forward recommendations, tangible projects that can make a fundamental difference to reducing our carbon footprint as a city, not just as a council. Internally, as a council, we're working on various projects that we can reduce our carbon footprint, but actually we're just a small proportion of the overall people, businesses that live and work in our city. And therefore it's absolutely vital that these recommendations come forward and we can demonstrate that actually, this is, if you like, an all commentary solution to what is ultimately not just a local problem, a national problem, but it's a world problem. So we've got some of the best brains in the field to tackle and look at some of these issues.

[00:19:30.280] – John Bates

Now, it's quite a complex task, isn't it, to engage with all of these various audiences and organisations. Is that going well?

[00:19:41.400] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

It is going very well. I'm very pleased with the representation that we've got. One of the things I wanted to do was to have some of the energy companies who are often seen in the wider context of our countries, some of the, if you like, authors, some of the problems that we face. But they are experts in their field of energy and they're on this journey in order to move to fossil free fuels and actually that is something that I want to tap into as a city. We need to tap into that energy, that expertise, that knowledge. We've got academics on board, we've got the public sector on board, we've got the third sector, we've got Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. We're not leaving anything or anybody out because everybody is bringing different skills and different understandings to the table so that we can actually pick the best of what it is we need in order to be able to help support our climate change initiatives in the city.

[00:20:44.280] – John Bates

So the economic climate is obviously difficult. That's presenting some great challenges and the sorts of solutions that are being brought forward that will have a financial impact. Is that easily managed in the financial climate that we're in?

[00:20:59.710] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

No, it's not. I mean, the economic challenges that are facing our residents, the economic challenges is facing our country are absolutely profound. I mean, you asked earlier on, we've just come out of a climate change board meeting and you asked how it went and what we discussed. And the truth is, I've said that the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis, is not just a crisis, it's a national emergency. We're seeing that people living in some of the poorer parts of our city are going to be dramatically adversely affected by the rising in fuel prices. But actually a huge proportion of our residents, regardless of where they live and relatively how well off they are, are going to be massively affected as well. That's because gas prices are going through the roof. If ever there was a clarion call for a country, for a world to move away from fossil fuels, this is it. But we can't do it overnight. We need that support. We need both that financial support from government and ultimately only government can do it. And actually that's what the intervention that's one of the intervention I would say is very similar to what happened in 2008 when you have the massive worldwide recession whereby the government stepped in to protect the banks because if the banks went under, people's savings, people's houses, people's jobs would all have been lost.

[00:22:27.750] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

The public purse would have suffered as that would have been obviously dramatically decreased. The opportunity for us to move from recession into growth, we are in that process again. But it's actually even worse. I think that we need to do to protect both our utility companies, to protect the customers, protect our residents and our country. We need to do exactly the same again. Take them over, actually take control, back them up financially as a country in order to see us through to the next phase, then see what we do. So these issues are tremendously serious. Never mind the fact we've seen a summer of wildfires, of rain and water shortages. These are the direct consequences we're now facing in terms of using fossil fuel. It's just doubling problem onto problem. It's really dramatic, a national crisis.

[00:23:22.030] – John Bates

You talk about the phases, so I guess the next phase is around the Climate Change Strategy for Coventry. Are you setting about publishing a strategy?

[00:23:33.390] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

The strategy will be ready for publication in March next year, after Cabinet approves the final recommendations as we will have a public consultation early in the new year. So the strategy can become operational in the new financial year, running from April 23 through to 2030. This is a big piece of work and the point is, this is not just about, as I said at the start, not just about the City Council, this is about our city. We can make a difference as a city, but we are one small cog in the wheel of both the West Midlands and, of course, in terms of the country.

[00:24:15.280] – John Bates

And can residents and businesses help contribute to that?

[00:24:18.610] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

Well, our green business team will run events with the business network. The green business network. And so we're in a position to consult with different people, circular, economy, sustainability matters. We're also running a hybrid launch event for the strategy consultation, followed by a series of consultation events during December this year through to February, which we're going to hold in neighbourhoods around the city and they're going to include online virtual events as well. In other words, we're trying to reach as wide a possible audience from the public, the private and of course, sector from our residents as well. It's important that we engage with them because obviously this is about our city. We want our city and it's people to take part.

[00:25:06.610] – John Bates

Jim, I've been hearing through this sort of series of podcasts, there's lots of initiatives that are going on to reduce carbon in the city and I just wonder about local sort of decarbonisation targets. Is that something that is in place in Coventry?

[00:25:24.040] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

Look, the truth is here, we must work towards as early as possible, as a city, as a country, to reduce our carbon footprint to zero. But it would be completely wrong for me, as the Cabinet Member responsible for the City Council, to say, we are signing up to a target we do not have the words as we do not have the tools for us to actually achieve that. However, what we can do is work with our partners in business, work with our partners in the public sector, work with different businesses and industry across our country to bring them together, to actually work in a way that actually leads us towards a way towards carbon Zero. That's the much more honest approach. And anybody who looks at this, we know that all the experts are telling us 2050 as a country is completely unachievable. Based on the pathway the government are on at the moment, we're going to get absolutely nowhere near that. They're not taking it seriously, as far as I can see. And as far as the experts say, 2041 by Combined Authority is, quite frankly, not achievable, not because there isn't the will, there's the will, but unless you've got the tools, unless you've got the finance to do it, then it's not going to happen.

[00:26:46.390] - Councillor Jim O'Boyle

The council do not own everybody's house, everybody's flat. Yet if you don't make those properties carbon zero using fossil free fuel, then I'm afraid your pledges about Carbon Zero Country are utterly fatuous. It doesn't exist. Country loan, I think you're talking about, to do that, to insulate, to make these properties able to be completely free from fossil fuel, energy efficient; £15 billion the council's budget a year to deliver social services, deliver transport, deliver the bins and the lighting and the roads, etc is about a billion pounds alone. 15 billion more in the country is spending as a whole on the whole of these initiatives across the country. So people have to get real, the government have to get real, and our Climate Change Board, we start to understand and tackle those issues.

[00:27:52.240] – John Bates

Cllr Jim O'Boyle, Thank you very much.

Thank you for listening to this podcast and I hope you found it interesting. I would encourage you to listen to previous episodes in this series to hear about all the great things going on in Coventry, in Warwickshire, to help businesses and others combat climate change. My thanks to the guests Margot James, Suzanne Ward and of course, Cllr Jim O'Boyle. You can keep up to date with Coventry's latest green news and events by joining our Green Business Network, which allows businesses to come together, share ideas and promote energy, resource waste and water efficiency, as well as engage on low carbon environmental and green sustainability initiatives. The network is free to join and open to everyone. The Green Business Programme is part funded by the European Regional Development Fund and delivered by Coventry City Council, Country University and Coventry University enterprises. This podcast was produced, used by Maria Covlea. I'm John Bates. Thanks for listening.


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Published date
6 October 2022