Hannah Knox reflects on the latest example of promising-to-act in Manchester, the Mayor’s Green Summit of March 25th.
Last Monday’s Mayor’s Green Summit was the second round of what looks to become an annual ritual of green networking, target setting and back patting. It was my first Green Summit as I wasn’t one of the chosen ones to get a ticket the first time round, but this time it was bigger (with a new venue at The Lowry), meaning lots of people who like me didn’t get selected for a ticket last year were able to come.
The green summit was initiated by Andy Burnham’s team last year to establish a collective agenda on climate change for Greater Manchester. This year’s event revolved around the launch of the ‘first’ five year plan for climate change in Greater Manchester.
There were some new appearances at this years conference. A group of Manchester’s youth climate strikers headed up by Bury Youth MP Emma Greenwood opened the conference with personal and political messages about why climate change needs to be tackled. The bottom up then segued into the top down with a personalised message from HRH Prince of Wales about the importance of cities like Greater Manchester doing their bit, and a video of Chris Packham about how important the conference was. Later in the day celebrities Bez from the Happy Mondays and Peter Gunn from Coronation street did a daytime TV style sofa-set with Andy Burnham which at moments teetered awkwardly between denialism and climate action, and Manchester poet Lemn Sissay was also on stage, turning environmental policy into policy poetry with a musical rendition of his inspiring beat poem What If.
This festival tone was the backdrop for the launch of Greater Manchester’s Five Year Plan to tackle climate change. Anyone who follows Manchester Climate Monthly might be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu. Have we not been here before, in 2011 to be exact, when Greater Manchester launched its 2011-2020 climate strategy? No mention of how the city region had done against that plan however, but no matter. Instead this was all about ‘embracing the future’, about fresh new plans and pledges towards achieving these new goals. Political smugosphere, Marc? Rather like climate change itself, it was the future that framed the present, whilst the power of the past to teach us lessons about what was done well or what to do now was ignored.
One thing about the future framing the present was that it allowed for the appearance of a term that was new to me in policy-speak – THE GAP. THE GAP is the difference between the strategic commitments being made by GM (net-zero carbon by 2038) and the projections provided by the Tyndall Centre Scatter Analysis of what Greater Manchester needs to do to tackle climate change to keep within 2 degrees of warming. Ironically for all the talk of ‘opportunity’ rather than ‘burden’, THE GAP is a policy acknowledgement, that the 5 year strategy is failing, in climatological terms, before it has even begun.
Now tackling global climate change at a city level is clearly difficult, and working with little budget under a Tory government is going to restrict what can be done by a group of policy makers, so THE GAP is probably inevitable, but there did seem some big missed opportunities here. A pledge was made to bring in a zero carbon housing code by 2028 – 9 years to create a local policy instrument: really – 9 years? And what happened to last year’s talk of a GM energy company? Different ownership models for energy provision? Fuel poverty?
More worryingly, though, was that THE GAP also seemed to weirdly legitimise failure as a form of success. When Extinction Rebellion stormed the conference at the end of the day, shouting out to the now depleted audience, ‘do more, faster, now’, and ‘we demand more’ their critique had already been dampened by THE GAP that already anticipated this call to action. Unfazed, Burnham muted their urgent cries by giving them the microphone and inviting them to put their views across, telling us he couldn’t agree with them more. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but perhaps it is important to do more now than just acknowledge, with policy makers, a gap between strategies and projections. The suffragettes and the civil rights movement didn’t call for a % increase in rights by a certain date. They called for absolute changes now. As Lemn Sissay puts it ‘a lost number in the equation, a simple understandable miscalculation – and what if on the basis of that the world as we knew it changed its matter of fact – let me get it right – what if we got it wrong?’ If we are going to rise to the challenge Andy Burnham posed to hold GM to account and to ask them to do more, perhaps what we need is a different calculation to that of the policy makers, one that demands not that we gradually try to close THE GAP – but that we challenge city regions like GM to confront absolutes. We have had Manchester Nuclear Free City – what if we were to aim not for a ‘net-zero carbon Manchester by 2038’, but dared to demand an absolute change, something like ‘Fossil Free GM’. Perhaps now the time has come to replace indicators with infrastructures, pledges with planning legislation, and ever receding futures with a now measured only against itself.
Hannah Knox is Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCL. Since 2011 Hannah has been researching how climate models come to matter in political life with a focus on the everyday work of climate mitigation in Manchester. She is author of Roads: An Anthropology of Infrastructure and Expertise (2015) and Ethnography in a Data Saturated world (2018). Her forthcoming book about her research in Manchester Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change should be out next year.