Following the G7 summit, the green recovery is high on the government’s agenda. Lucy Robinson takes a look at Nottingham – a city with a pioneering approach to sustainable living.
A fleet of electric powered taxis greet you at the train station, solar panels crown the roofs of thousands of council houses, and there’s thousands of trees cropping up on corners across the city. You’d be wrong for thinking that you’ve found yourself in Stockholm, but this is something a little less continental.
This is Nottingham, the Queen of the Midlands.
All of this is part of Nottingham’s plan to become the first carbon neutral city in the UK. Approved last summer, Nottingham City Council is aiming to reach net zero by 2028 – 22 years before the UK-wide target of 2050.
But this isn’t the first time the city has been hot on its green agenda. Back in 1998, the city started turning its waste into energy at the Eastcroft incinerator, in 2004 the 32-kilometre tram system opened to the public and in 2016, the city beat its target of cutting emissions by 26%, a full four years ahead of schedule.
“What we’re trying to do is make this real, not just talk about it. We’re building on what we what we’ve already done,” says Chris Common, 56, carbon neutral policy manager at Nottingham City Council. “But we can’t rest on our laurels because we’ve got to do all that again. That’s the challenge.”
Undeniably, the plan is ambitious. But in circumstances like these, it is clear that ambition is exactly what the city needs – it was only over the weekend that David Attenborough warned G7 leaders that humans were on track to destabilise the planet.
More so, in a report by IPCC, it was announced that global emissions of carbon dioxide must have peaked by 2020 for the global temperature rise to be kept below 1.5 Celsius – a central part of the agenda at Glasgow’s COP26 later this year.
Where other cities across the country have set their own targets of becoming carbon neutral, Nottingham is determined to beat them to the accolade of being the first one to the finish line.
“No-one else is doing it this quick. The nearest is perhaps Bristol – they’re going for 2030,” says Chris. “We’ve got seven years to try and do this. But there’s lots of work going off in lots of areas. It’s not just one thing. We’re trying to do everything.”
Transport, consumption, energy and waste and water are all priorities in the city’s plans and are set to be transformed over the next decade. From working with businesses of all sizes to encourage sustainable consumption practices to helping school catering teams adopt more meat-free meals, a lot of this change is, importantly, a collective effort.
“What we want to do is be as green and as sustainable as we can be in everything we buy,” he says.
Though the city has, by and large, welcomed this new title, not everyone has been so easily swayed. Hidden among the action plan is a strand dedicated to behavioural change, with the council now working closely with different community and pressure groups to help build the momentum further.
“We’re going to try and gently persuade people, we don’t want to frighten people”
“There’s 300,000 people in the city – I don’t think 300,000 people get this. There’s quite a lot of people who don’t want to believe it,” he says. “We’re going to try and gently persuade people, we don’t want to frighten people… We’ve found that message tends not to resonate.”
But spending time with individuals, organisations, universities and schools across Nottingham, Chris is optimistic that change is happening. “They’re not asking why, they’re asking how,” he says. “I’m not having to say ‘well, why are we doing this?’… We do lots of consultation surveys to make sure the messages are going across and, so far, they are.”
In fact, so much so, there are calls to transform the old Broadmarsh shopping centre into a green space in the city centre.
“The idea for that is for it to be as green and as sustainable as it can be,” says Chris. “This could be an example of how cities could look.”
For Nottingham-based climate change charity Nottingham Energy Partnership (NEP), this collectivism is where the initiative’s success lies.
“Whilst there is a limit to what can be achieved through the actions of individuals, empowering an entire community to engage with the climate crisis is not only valuable in and of itself,” says an NEP representative. “It can provide a blueprint for other communities to follow in its footsteps.”
Founded 23 years ago, the charity, which helps improve the energy efficiency of people’s homes, has seen the city’s attitudes change all thanks to the leadership of Nottingham City Council’s deputy leader, Sally Longford.
“When we began, there weren’t so many people talking about climate change,” says NEP. “But recently, we’ve seen a huge amount of interest from people to improve the comfort of their homes in a sustainable way.”
“I suppose if you’re a betting person, you’d probably say it’s a long shot”
Chris agrees, noting that it’s crucial for the council to do more than create policies, but to also lead the way in their own actions to show others how they can make changes to their own lives.
“We’ve got a policy about reducing single use plastic by 2023 in the council,” he says. “We do all sorts of campaigns to encourage others to reduce their single use plastic.”
As to whether the target of 2028 is actually doable, Chris is confident, but emphasises that times and dates aren’t the entire story.
“I suppose if you’re a betting person, you’d probably say it’s a long shot,” he says. “But one thing we’re saying is, is that it’s driving an awful lot of behaviour. We’ve set this bar so high, it drives a lot of innovation and a lot of creative thinking to get there.”
Besides, without trying, change can’t happen in the first place.
“We’re Nottingham, so we do this. We don’t do things by half in Nottingham,” says Chris. “We’re all sons and daughters of Robin Hood, aren’t we?”