Birmingham has given itself an almighty challenge in its attempts to put itself at the forefront in the battle to become a more sustainable city and the most worrying thing is that nobody knows how it is doing. The previous administration gave Birmingham the target of reducing carbon emissions by 60% from 1990 levels, but now the new labour cabinet member has said there is a large amount of risk to Birmingham’s reputation at stake.


At the moment we do not know whether the city will even meet government targets of much lower reductions let along be a European leader, due to problems in obtaining the data for measuring this.


We have always congratulated the Council for having ambitious aims that we wholeheartedly support, but have also been quick to raise our concerns about the contradictory way they go about being a sustainable city. 


At Birmingham Friends of the Earth we are very keen to be involved as much as we can be in the process of working out how to achieve ambitious reductions in the city’s environmental footprint. The recently appointed Labour Cabinet Member for Green, Safe and Smart City James McKay has spoken to us about his concerns, but also reiterated the desire of the new administration to hit the target. We were very pleased by this, although we have not yet been informed of how the promised “Green Commission” is going to work and what measures will be taken to ensure Birmingham is on track to become one of the greenest cities in Europe.


One of the biggest problems is that we are not even sure where the data for carbon emissions in Birmingham for 1990 is (is anyone?), but this must exist if a target has been set, so it should be widely publicised as the baseline data. If we don’t know what the target is that we are attempting to better how can we get there?


Also, we have seen a few policy documents on low carbon and climate change, but they are all very vague and none of them really seems to contain a proper pathway to a city which emits 60% less CO2, so does this exist anywhere? If not, when are they expecting to draw one up? There are 14 years left and surely they can’t be leaving it all down to technological change which will just happen without large local policy interventions.


The biggest concern that we have at Birmingham Friends of the Earth is that there is a lack of a vision for the city which is understood and bought into by the whole cabinet. Almost all the policy choices that are made can impact on the environmental and sustainability agenda, but from an outsider’s perspective, many decisions seem to be made on an ad hoc basis and without looking at environmental limits at all. The mantra that growth must come before all else, which still dominates the debate, must be put aside to allow sustainable development that would benefit us all, not just the business elite. Looking at the current direction of policy, there is no way that we can reach the 60% reduction in carbon emissions by 2026. A dramatic shift in practices and strategy that encompasses the whole city is required.


Is it really worth going for these targets, then? Well, yes. If we did achieve the 60% figure the benefits for Birmingham and its citizens would be great. There would be great prestige and Birmingham could become a hub for green investment bringing in thousands of new jobs (see also the article on solar). A second benefit would be that local businesses would be using less energy, saving money and thus increasing the amount of money they can reinvest in training or other benefits to the workforce and the community. It would also be a much healthier, more cohesive and happier city.


What Birmingham Friends of the Earth want is a new approach that really stands a chance of succeeding. First of all, we need to understand exactly how much CO2 will be emitted from each sector – homes and buildings, energy generation, transport and resource use being the key ones. Each area can then be examined for ways to achieve such levels of emissions.


To engage the public we would suggest doing a visioning exercise (as has been done in many other places), so that people can see what the city could look like under different scenarios given choices of where to make cuts. Then a back-casting exercise should be done to identify the steps needed to get to the solutions which best fit Birmingham.


James McKay’s Green Commission must investigate a way to achieve the 60% reduction of carbon emissions by 2026. We are keen to support them in this and would like to be involved in the process, as we are optimistic about the success Birmingham can obtain.