Event Report: “Smart Cities” or not so smart? #Manchester

“You can trade carbon on your way to the airport” – this was probably the standout jaw dropper last Friday night at an MMU/Science Festival event putatively on “Global Science, Local Impact: Smart Cities.” There was some stiff competition, such as the contemptible and intellectually bankrupt line of Manchester’s policymakers, who are happy to take credit for outside influences where it suits them (i.e. national grid decarbonisation) while simultaneously bemoaning outside influences (austerity) as the reason they didn’t do things actually totally within their control (carbon literacy, public engagement, holding elections and conferences).

A Friday night is an interesting time to hold one of these events, and free food helped get me through the door (your priorities change when the PhD funding runs out). The food was good, as was the conversation with old friends and new. That’s where the fun ended…

Opening introduction – yeah, whatever. But it’s good if comperes have actually checked the biogs with the panellists before having to be corrected ‘live.’

First off we were subjected to a grim pseudo-participatory ‘poll’ (for those of us with mobiles) which showed that all but two of the people in the room thought climate change was serious or very serious. Wow!

Five panellists, thankfully not all middle-aged white men.

Then a painful powerpoint presentation, based on top-down information deficit, not even done with any great flair, conviction or panache, and without a 100% renewable option from the ‘scenarios’

Then the the official version of the history of how the 2009 Climate Change Action Plan came into existence got trotted out again, by someone who has said it so many times now that they probably believe it (can’t afford not to). This official version says the City Council magnanimously “chose” to consult citizens in making the plan. The reality was that, after years of failure and missed targets, they had outsourced the writing of a laughable “call to action” document to a London consultancy. This provoked the current author and a bunch of other people into writing the ‘Call to Real Action’ document. The Council, realising it had no way of sending little Richard Leese to Copenhagen with a completed plan based on its internal “talent pool” (cough cough) then adopted a methodology proposed by the author to create working groups etc and the document was, finally produced. And its promises then betrayed over and over by bureaucrats and politicians whose ineptitude and bad faith is on a a cosmic scale.

Thirdly (and this was the only decent bit) Jonathan Atkinson of Carbon Coop actually – gasp, engaged the audience. He asked two key questions – who feels ownership of the energy system (feels like they have a modicum of control). Came a couple of yeses from the 50 or more people present – people with solar panels, shares in community energy companies. And – who feels they have enough agency and information to be involved in the great energy transition.

Atkinson advocated for various forms of public ownership, and warned that some technologies are (deliberately?) over-complicated, and need to be open source.

The next talk was the one from which the ‘carbon trading on the way to the airport’ came. Enough said, tbh.

The final talk – and kudos to the person for keeping it short, a skill others could have learnt- was about the ‘Carbon Literacy Project’.

Q and A: I asked two questions and made one observation.

Q1: In 2009 the vaunted climate change action plan set a target of having everyone who lived worked or studied in Manchester (1 million people) having undergone a day’s carbon literacy training by the end of 2013. What’s the number.

Answer: 6,700, but we’re picking up steam (This number, I think, includes people in Edinburgh…) Oh, and another panellist argued this is what he’d been talking about – how wonderful it was that the Council had set these audacious (“arguably overambitious”) goals…… “We’re on the way, early stages”…. tumbleweed.

Q2: So, the ‘we’ll miss our 41% target but will have 34% reduction by 2020’ thing. Given that OTHER cities have the same reduction, and DIDN’T have wonderful plans and steering groups, is it not the case that the 34% reduction is down to the decarbonisation of the National Grid (no longer burning coal, slightly more renewables) (and the increased efficiency of gizmos, but I didn’t say that).

Answer: Er, yes. But we’ve got lots of wonderful glossy documents you could read about lots of promises businesses and ‘communities’ have made. (Which, you admit, haven’t added any percentage reduction to Manchester’s profile!!!!)

This is when the rank hypocrisy really kicked in. Somehow Manchester can take the credit for decarbonisation (a factor outside of its control!) but the fact that Council Leader Richard Leese launched the Carbon Literacy Project in 2012 but only did his OWN carbon literacy training earlier this year (amidst a sustained FOIA campaign by the author) is George Osborne’s fault? And the cancellation – yes, cancellation – of the Annual Stakeholders Conference is the fault of evil Westminster? How do these people sleep?

Observation: I cut my emissions by being vegetarian, cycling, not having kids (this one got laughter from some – yeah, well, you won’t be laughing when the second half of the twenty-first century makes the first half of the twentieth look like a golden age of peace love and understanding. And we probably won’t have to wait for 2050 for that to kick in). But once a year I fly to Australia to visit my family, blowing my carbon footprint skyhigh (ho ho). Won’t that be the case for Manchester as a ‘zero carbon’ city.

Answer: Mumble mumble, perhaps we will have planes that don’t need energy/that will arrive having sucked it out of the air and have more power when they land.

Jonathan Atkinson of Carbon Coop at least had the honesty to say this was a serious problem that needed to be talked about.

The other question – a corker – was ‘whose job is this – individuals or government’.  It was mostly bungled of course.  Waffle waffle.


Final Observations

  • Three of the panellists FLEW IN for this (some presumably from Brussels, which is v. accessible by train). For no apparent effort to consider video-conferencing. Was a carbon budget for this event done? Would a MCFly reader care to FOIA MMU about this?
  • Although the title of the event spoke of “Smart Cities” (the buzzword du jour), to the profound irritation of at least one person, there was little (er, nothing) about that topic in the first half. This was simply about energy systems and so on.
  • As for the second half? Couldn’t tell you. We law of two feeted it, on the basis that things rarely if ever get better from a dodgy start. We then went to the truly appalling ‘Geostorm’.  Frying pans and fires….

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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