Climate change action is an increasingly important topic to many Mancunians, as it is to people all over the world, but one person that this topic is particularly significant to today is Manchester City Council leader, Sir Richard Leese. Sir Richard has been council leader since 1996 – almost 24 years – and throughout his time in this position, climate change has been a topic that, unlike other party or council leaders, he hasn’t been afraid to talk about, let alone take tremendous action against.

In March 2020, the Manchester Zero Carbon Framework will be released, stating precisely how the city’s carbon emissions will be reduced to zero by the year 2038. In lieu of this framework, we speak to Sir Richard about actions that Manchester City Council is taking to reduce carbon emissions throughout the city, and about how you, a citizen of Manchester, can too.

In 2009 the council released a ‘Climate Change Call to Action’ report which stated that by 2020, the city’s emissions will be reduced by one-third. What actions have been taken to reach this target and are you on track to reach it?

In 2009/10, the council published its commitment to contribute to the citywide reduction in carbon emissions and set this out in the Manchester City Council Climate Change Delivery Plan. The council committed to reducing its direct carbon emissions by 41% by 2019/2020 from a 2009/10 baseline. Following this, the council produced a series of action plans which detailed the activities that would be undertaken in order to ensure that our commitments were met. The latest data for the 2018/19 financial year shows that the council’s direct emissions have reduced by 48.1%, meaning the 41% target has in fact been achieved and surpassed a year ahead of schedule.

Key contributing factors include a 46% reduction in carbon emissions from buildings, and the installation of LED light bulbs for street lighting, which has reduced emissions by 58%. Decarbonisation of the National Grid and savings in emissions associated with staff travel are also attributed to the reduction.

The city has now pledged to become a zero carbon city by 2038 and the finalised Manchester Zero Carbon Framework will be released in March 2020; what key strategies will be outlined in the framework to achieve this?

For the council, it’s about getting to a position where the push for zero carbon is at the heart of both our day-to-day operations and our decision-making processes as quickly as possible. A huge amount of work is already underway to ensure that policies and decisions help reduce, rather than add to, Manchester’s carbon footprint. This includes strategies ranging from a refreshed Local Plan that will help ensure new builds contribute to our long term zero carbon ambitions and develop an ambitious programme for retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. We’ll also look at how and when our staff travel, and we will continue to encourage drivers to switch from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric ones, and from private car journeys to public transport, cycling and walking. The council will also use its influence to bring organisations and people together, and to support communities that want to make a difference and encourage change.

What are the main industries and sectors the council is focusing upon to help reduce carbon waste?

We all have a part to play. As a council, we need to get our own house in order. We have made considerable progress by reducing our carbon emissions by nearly 50%, but we can still do more – and our emissions only account for around two per cent of the city as a whole. To reach our target, businesses and individuals alike will have to make fundamental changes. We aren’t singling out particular sectors, but clearly all businesses need to minimise their carbon footprint, whether that’s around staff travel, the materials they use or the premises they are based in. A big challenge we all face is how we make rapid changes to the way in which we heat and indeed cool buildings, and that is a lot harder for existing buildings than it is for new ones.

How is the city balancing the development of a zero carbon future with its rapid population growth?

It would be a misunderstanding to think that declaring a climate change emergency means slamming the breaks on development in Manchester. It’s essential that we still create the homes, jobs and amenities that our growing city needs in the next 20 years, but in a more sustainable way. We are doing this partly by maximising the use of brownfield sites rather than encouraging urban sprawl onto greenfield land, which is both wasteful and encourages car use. The challenge is how we make this development zero carbon. Equally, reducing car use – something we all need to do – takes time, and if we don’t plan for and manage existing traffic we will only end up with more congestion, more emissions and a slower journey to cleaner air.

60 organisations have already pledged to meet the zero carbon goal. How is the council engaging and mobilising other businesses and residents to play their part in the zero carbon journey?

The council is a key member and supporter of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership. This body brings together representatives from other public bodies, the private sector and environmental organisations. Members include the city’s two universities, the local health service, Manchester City Football Club, arts organisations, private companies and Friends of the Earth. One of its key roles is to encourage its members to develop exemplar projects and spread good practice, as well as to work with community groups to encourage others to play their full part. While the council has a responsibility to set an example, we will not achieve our goals unless everyone makes the changes that they are able to.

How is the developing green industry in Manchester bringing opportunity for jobs and investments?

We want to be a leader in this area and, as we move to a low carbon economy, we will also look to help Manchester businesses and entrepreneurs seize the huge opportunities associated with the growing green sector. The Greater Manchester Industrial Strategy stresses the economic opportunity that is presented by the move to a lower carbon economy and already identifies 2,500 Greater Manchester companies and 45,000 employees working in the low carbon goods and services sector across the region.

How can Manchester’s residents reduce carbon emissions in their own homes and how will they personally benefit from doing so?

There are obviously lots of things people can do in their own homes to reduce emissions, from switching to greener suppliers, to taking steps to improve energy efficiency and reduce consumption and bills. As a council, we will be looking at what we can do to support the retrofitting of as much of our social housing stock as possible. However, reducing emissions goes further than people’s homes; transportation choices are also a major factor and so we are keen to encourage people to use public transport, cycle or walk wherever possible. To achieve this, we have to promote emission-positive transportation choices by making public transport as appealing as possible, as well as improve facilities for people who choose to use their own vehicles.

Are there any other aspects of Manchester City Council’s climate change agenda you would like to address? 

We are often asked ‘but what about the airport?’ The airport is a hub for all of Northern England and only around nine per cent of the passengers using it each year are actually from the city of Manchester, so it would be unreasonable to attribute its emissions to this city alone. It is also a major asset for the city that supports and creates jobs, as well as bringing investment and opportunities on a global stage. We are determined to balance the airport’s growth with the interests of our communities and our carbon ambitions.

It is long-standing government policy that aviation emissions are best dealt with at an international level. Unilateral action to constrain activity at Manchester International Airport would only lead to a diversion of travellers to other airports, resulting in no overall carbon saving and a detrimental impact to the city. Regardless, the airport has worked hard to reduce emissions directly related to its operations and is committed to working with the aviation industry to reduce their emissions too.