As we emerge from lockdown into a 'new normal', there has been some speculation that this could be an opportunity to reform old ideas, creating a society that is greener than ever before. We asked some of the city's leading environmental figures what they think.
The Peterborough City Council declared a climate emergency last year, on July 24, committing to a number of targets and goals that make the city a leader in terms of environmental action and response. These included making the council’s activities net-zero by 2030, convening a citizen’s assembly on the subject of climate change, providing improved electric vehicle infrastructure, and co-ordinating events to raise awareness and keep residents informed of progress being made.
The coronavirus crisis has seen priorities shift, however. As the city shut down in March, the council was inundated with questions about the short-term – public health, the local economy, protecting the vulnerable, the plans for schools.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) sent a letter to the Prime Minister in May, stressing the need for rebuilding the economy in a way that supports sustainability. Lord Deben, chairman of the CCC said: "The COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of planning well for the risks the country faces. Recovery means investing in new jobs, cleaner air and improved health.
"The actions needed to tackle climate change are central to rebuilding our economy. The government must prioritise actions that reduce climate risks and avoid measures that lock-in higher emissions."
How can Peterborough take action in this moment to reinforce its aspiration to be the UK’s Environment Capital? Peterborough Matters approached a number of prominent environmental figures and groups around the city to see how they feel this opportunity to rebuild society should be seized.Stuart Dawks, interim chief executive of Peterborough Environment City Trust (PECT), said: "A poll carried out during lockdown in the UK found that 85% of people wanted to see some of the personal or social changes they had experienced continue afterwards. We have seen that a new way of doing things is not just possible, but sometimes preferable.
"The crisis has had a massive impact on changing people’s everyday patterns and behaviours, and this has affected the environment too. During this time of lockdown, we have experienced reduced levels of pollution, thriving wildlife, an increased appreciation of our local environment, plus seen more people cycling and walking.
"We are at a critical point in time where we need to make lasting changes to how we live. This crisis offers an opportunity to focus on sustainable and long-term transformation of the way we live and work, to help avoid the next global emergency. We will need to focus on initiatives to make our communities more resilient: such as tackling pollution, looking at renewable energy, changing our food systems and the materials we use."
PECT already promotes sustainable practices to support and protect the environment, delivering projects to encourage growing food locally, support renewable energy schemes, create safer transport routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Stuart would like to see more of these. More protection for green spaces and increased access to and education about them; continued improvements to local cycling and walking infrastructure; more support for sustainable and healthy lifestyles, including addressing barriers to physical and mental health.
He continued: "We want to work with organisations to have a positive impact on the local and global environment, supporting the transition to clean growth, circular economies, and achieving net zero carbon emissions. These solutions will support more responsible resource use, giving us cleaner air and improved health, and support action on climate change that is consistent with a 1.5C future path."
Green Party councillor for Orton Waterville, Julie Howell, is unconvinced that the crisis has fundamentally changed people’s habits and attitudes. She said: "We fear the window of opportunity is very small. It may be true that some people now appreciate nature more than they did, but we see little evidence as lockdown has eased that everyone is now making the connection between any of the issues that cause environmental damage and their own behaviour. Littering, car use and fly-tipping are all on the rise again, and judging by the queues of people snaking their way around Queensgate, we are as keen as ever to buy fast fashion, one of the planets biggest causes of pollution."
Julie worries about the implications that the ‘street café culture’ - will it lead to increased street lighting and increased use of outdoor heaters? Indulging in these measures could be even worse for the environment.
There are opportunities for further conversation, she feels, that will hopefully encourage Peterborough residents to consider a more sustainable way of living. She added: "The Government has made available funding for the council to make the city more friendly to walkers and cyclists. This has been applied for and we hope the city will embrace the changes the council will make. The pandemic threatens to devastate local public transport but still we urge people not to turn to the car, but to consider whether walking or cycling are viable alternatives.
"We encourage residents to consider the ‘air miles’ of their food, and to buy locally whenever they can. And when buying food, consider the amount of packaging waste that foodstuff will generate. People have become more aware of their own rubbish during lockdown. We would ask residents to consider more deeply where the stuff they are putting in their bins has come from and whether they can make different buying decisions that will ensure they are generating less fodder for the city incinerator or regional landfill sites.
There have been positive consequences of lockdown, Julie notes, including the explosion in ‘gifting culture’. Many people are clearing out their houses and advertising the things they don’t want online – for people to come and collect for free. There’s also been an increase in ‘upcycling’, where new things are made from broken or damaged items.
"We can emerge from this pandemic with a greener outlook," Julie said. "But it is entirely dependent on our willingness to change, and not return to the habits of old."
Councillor Nicola Day placed emphasis on wider issues within the economy. Green transport, recycling and sustainable living are conversations that many are familiar with, but investment, industries and income are three areas that also need to be addressed under any ‘green recovery’ proposal.
She said: "The Green Party believe that a Green New Deal should be adopted. Economists and Greens gathered after the 2008 global financial crisis, inspired by the public investment and infrastructure under President Roosevelt. The deal created would see, among other policies, investment in green energy and energy efficiency. Houses would be properly insulated and built to energy efficient standards. Household bills would be reduced."
As part of Peterborough City Council’s climate emergency motions to reach net-zero by 2030, Nicola wants to see greater involvement with Trade Unions to hear about solutions driven by people on the frontline of industry and business.
A large part of the Green New Deal involves measuring success of nations differently. Instead of focusing on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), other factors, such as people’s health and well-being, would be taken into consideration.
Nicola continued: "During lockdown we have seen many losing their jobs completely. The government support package simply isn't enough to keep all families going. Universal Credit is taking weeks and £94 a week is not enough to pay rent and bills. The temporary payments offered exclude millions of people - if you're recently self-employed, if you've been on maternity leave, on a zero-hours contract or lost your job.
"The government urgently needs to provide an emergency, universal basic income: a straightforward monthly payment that supports us with basic essentials. No complicated criteria or massive delays. Spain has already agreed to introduce universal basic income - now it's time for the UK to step up. We need to fix this economic system that is trashing the climate and pushing people to vulnerability."
Joe Hostead is co-founder of The People Project, a local group committed to promoting the United Nation's 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Speaking to Peterborough Matters about his thoughts on the economic recovery, Joe said: "Since the outbreak began, I’ve been having the same conversations with people who rarely give a second thought to sustainability. 'Pollution levels have dropped in places to their lowest since the early 1900’s', 'Did you see that all the rough-sleepers have been placed into accommodation?', 'We’ve been growing our own potatoes!' However all these conversations seem to end with the same daunting sentence 'I don’t think it will last though...'"
He, and the rest of The People Project, believe it can last. The UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development lay out a framework for ending poverty, fighting inequality and combating climate change. They empower individuals to make a difference by reducing consumption, protecting the environment and considering themselves a citizen of the world, rather than specific nations or cities.
Joe added: "We have been given almost a blank canvas here, and with that an opportunity to rethink, restructure and redesign our way of living. The 2030 Agenda is a blueprint to a better world for all with the intention that ‘No one gets left behind’, and the data shows that although the goals are ambitious they are achievable - but not with business as usual.
"As businesses re-open and people return to work, the priority needs to be in creating and implementing realistic and accountable sustainability plans not just to protect the employees and customers of Peterborough but for the whole world."Projects are already in place across the city to make environmental recovery a priority.
Kat Elwell, a local anti-litter campaigner, is asking for help to compile a map to promote the best eco-friendly services throughout the city. She wants residents to email her with suggestions about green services that can be plotted on a map – with categories including businesses offering water refills, fairtrade or plastic free eateries, local independent businesses and recycling centres or stations.
Extinction Rebellion visited the office of Paul Bristow earlier this week, June 25, to take action in light of the CCC report that revealed the government is not on track with its climate change targets. They asked for a meeting to discuss the ways in which the local community can be an example for how best to rebuild a sustainable, resilient economy after the pandemic.
PECT is encouraging Peterborough citizens to join the virtual lobby on June 30, The Time Is Now, where people can ask their MP to put the climate at the heart of the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.
A green recovery requires dedication from everyone – the city council have a large role to play, but so do local businesses, charities, schools, neighbourhoods and individuals. The shock of the coronavirus pandemic has shuffled priorities, understandably so, but the overwhelming feeling among campaigners and politicians seems to be that this could be an opportunity to reset. The search for the ‘new normal’ can be directed in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way.