Observer column: 22 February 2019
Last week, Hastings Council approved a ground-breaking resolution to make Hastings 'carbon neutral' by 2030. The full text of the resolution is on the council's website, but what does that mean, and how will we achieve it?
By 'carbon neutral', we mean fossil carbon (oil, coal, and gas). Burning those releases carbon (as carbon dioxide) that has been buried deep in the ground for hundreds of millions of years. So it increases the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, resulting in climate change. 'Carbon neutral' means that human activities in the borough would result in no net production of carbon dioxide.
There are nationally-produced figures for the amount of carbon dioxide produced in each local authority area, from the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (a branch of central government). The latest available figures (for 2016) show that total net carbon dioxide emissions in Hastings are 260kt (thousand tonnes) per year, or around 2.8 tonnes per person. That's low compared to many parts of the UK, and has been falling consistently year-on-year, but is still a big challenge to reduce to zero.
The resolution agreed by Hastings Council includes a number of steps we can take, including reviewing our planning policies to require higher levels of energy efficiency in new homes. But such policies need government approval, and would not in any case have a significant impact by 2030 - this is a much longer-term ambition. We can change our procurement policies too, to buy goods and services locally wherever we can, reducing carbon emissions and helping the local economy. But by far the biggest contribution Hastings Council can make is sustainable energy generation. The council owns around a quarter of all the land in Hastings, so there are big opportunities for both wind and solar energy. Government policies to end the feed-in tariff (which allows domestic solar panels to sell their electricity back into the grid) and ban onshore wind make it harder, but the opportunities are still there. We can also offer to install solar panels on roofs of businesses and public institutions, grouping these arrays into a single entity that can sell electricity to the supply companies. It would also raise income for the council to make up for government cuts and provide cheaper domestic electricity in the borough through a local supply network.
There are other methods of using land to reduce our carbon footprint, but none of these works as well. Planting trees, for example, locks up carbon from the atmosphere into wood. But sustainable energy generation is around 40 times more effective at reducing carbon emissions, by reducing the need to burn fossil fuels.
But Hastings Council cannot make Hastings carbon neutral on its own, and the lack of any government policy to tackle climate change is disappointing. We don't have powers to force businesses or individuals to use less power, make their premises more energy efficient, or use electricity from sustainable sources. What we can do is encourage other public service providers (East Sussex County Council in particular) to sign up to similar policies, and take on a community leadership role, encouraging everyone to reduce their carbon footprint. Making Hastings carbon neutral by 2030 will require all of us to play our part, change our lifestyles, and recognise the catastrophic potential consequences of climate change. We can achieve this, if we all work together.
Council Leader's column