GB Q&A: Net Zero action in West Yorkshire

Government Business (GB) talks to Tracy Brabin, Mayor of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, about Net Zero ambitions, local collaboration and tackling food waste

GB: The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is working towards enabling the region to be a net zero carbon economy by 2038 at the latest. How has the pandemic, and consequential lockdowns, helped or hindered that progress?

Mayor Brabin: When the first lockdown was announced back in March 2020, we all saw the immediate effect it had on the number of cars, buses and lorries on our region’s roads. The rule to stay at home and work from home where possible caused traffic levels to fall to unprecedented levels. This undoubtedly had a short-term impact on carbon emissions in West Yorkshire, as it did throughout the UK. But the longer-term impact is more complex.

If we look at Leeds, for example, the latest figures we have show that weekday traffic is down 13 per cent relative to 2019. So, we know there are fewer people coming into the city. But their method of transport is key. Within West Yorkshire, the number of people using buses is at the highest levels since the start of pandemic but still only around 70 per cent of what it was previously. And there is a similar picture on our railways, with the number of weekday passengers below 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels but much lower at weekends. We need to work with our partners to establish what the longer-term impact of changing patterns of behaviour will have on emissions levels and how that feeds into our decarbonisation plans.

Our research has shown that if we want to achieve our ambition of being a net zero carbon region by 2038 at the latest then we need to reduce car trips by 21 per cent and increase journeys made by cycling by 2,000 per cent, walking by 78 per cent, bus trips by 39 per cent and rail trips by 53 per cent. This will require each and every one of us to make fundamental changes to our day-to-day behaviour.

That’s why we must ensure that our recovery from Covid-19 is one which puts tackling the climate and environment emergency at its heart.
GB: To what extent is collaboration with councils and businesses crucial to ensure the transition to net zero is progressing as planned by 2038?

Mayor Brabin: Within West Yorkshire, there are five councils – Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield. Back in 2019, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority worked with its five partner councils, as well as a range of businesses, third sector organisations and our universities to officially declare a climate emergency. The Combined Authority then worked with the respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to establish how we could decarbonise each sector of our economy and when we could do that by. An in-depth study found that, as a region, we could reach our net zero ambition by 2038 at the latest.

It is vital to recognise that each of our partner councils cover distinct geographies, with their own challenges and opportunities when it comes to transitioning to a net zero economy. While some councils, such as Leeds with its more urban population, have declared they will be net zero carbon by 2030, we needed a target date for the entire region which was based on science as well as being achievable. Working closely with our partner councils on this joint ambition enables us to each learn from each other’s accomplishments and share best practice.

When I became Mayor of West Yorkshire earlier this year, I pledged to do everything in my power to tackle the climate and environment emergency. In October we published the West Yorkshire Climate and Environment Plan which sets out exactly how we will achieve our ambition of being a net zero carbon region by 2038. It has looked at a wide range of science-based studies into the challenges we face and established a series of steps we need to take. These are measures which complement existing local authority plans as well as offering practical help to enable businesses and people to play their part.

West Yorkshire is a region with a small number of energy-intensive industries. This is reflected in the relatively small emissions from this sector of the economy when compared to our largest emitting sectors of transport and buildings. Emissions are small but we do have concentrations of energy intensive industries in the glass, chemicals and food and drink sectors. It will be important to provide support to these industries to enable them to decarbonise and continue to provide vital employment for the people of West Yorkshire.

We have several Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) within the region that contribute significantly to overall emissions of the building sector. Meeting our net zero target will require us to provide flexible support that allows SMEs to decarbonise and whilst also enhancing their competitiveness.  

Creating a clean, safe and inclusive economy, as we recover and move beyond Covid-19, creates significant opportunities for firms, investors and innovators to shape the new economy of West Yorkshire. We are focussed on the activity that we will undertake over the next three years to address emissions from our businesses and industry and builds on the support that we already provide to SMEs in the region for energy and resource efficiency as well continuing to support businesses to encourage their staff to travel to and from work sustainably either by bike, walking or public transport.

GB: What infrastructure is in place, or is set to be introduced, to help more people to leave their cars at home, improving air quality and health?

Mayor Brabin: Within West Yorkshire, transport emits the most carbon, with more than 90 per cent of those transport emissions coming from cars and vans. Enabling more people to leave their cars at home and travel by public transport, walking and cycling is integral to us achieving our ambition to be a net zero carbon region by 2038 at the latest.

Unfortunately, our region has suffered from decades of underinvestment in our transport network and as a result we are more reliant on buses and cars than most areas of the UK. However, we hope that our recent funding bid to the government, The City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement, will help redress this balance by enabling us to deliver an integrated and inclusive transport network developed by people in West Yorkshire for people in West Yorkshire.

With this settlement, we can start delivering a new, high quality mass transit system, such as a tram, which will connect people across our region by 2040 and play a significant role in reducing our carbon emissions from transport.

In the shorter term, we need to ensure the Settlement also provides the funds to achieve our vision of a more reliable and affordable network of zero emission buses, as well as expanding walking and cycling routes to offer people a viable alternative to using the car.

New funding will enable us, as a region, to build on the impressive start we have already made. Through the CityConnect programme, we have already invested £60 million and improved 67km of walking and cycling routes throughout West Yorkshire.

This year, we opened the UK’s first solar powered park and ride facility at Stourton, this is the third in Leeds alongside Elland Road and Temple Green. It is served by a fleet of zero emission electric powered buses and offers people a quick, easy and affordable way to travel into the city centre.
We recognise that not all journeys can be made on public transport or by walking or cycling. This is why we’ve invested in the right infrastructure to enable people to switch to electric and hybrid powered vehicles. I’m proud to say that West Yorkshire now has the highest number of rapid chargers outside of London, with plans for more to be installed over the next few years. But the biggest barrier to people making the switch is the cost of the vehicles and we’ll continue to lobby the government to go further.

GB: One area of climate action that is often overlooked is food waste. How is the Combined Authority encouraging people to make changes to the way they eat?

Mayor Brabin: As a society, we have all become much more aware of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact our choices have on the environment. We all know that the global demand for certain foods has a knock-on impact on carbon emissions and that eating local produce is better for our health as well as the climate. Personally, many of my family members are vegan and I choose to eat a mainly plant based diet most of the time. But, as mayor, it’s not my job to tell people what to eat. However, the Combined Authority will do what it can to support organisations that are responsible for land restoration and production schemes, for example local food systems that deliver and demonstrate sustainability including net zero, nature recovery and public health outcomes.

The West Yorkshire Climate and Environment Plan sets out how we will establish a regional grants programme for land-use activities being progressed by communities. This includes community greening and food growing in urban areas, as well as supporting outlets for local healthy produce that does not meet supermarket standards such as wonky carrots for example.

Our response to each element of the climate and environment emergency needs to be rooted in the community to ensure that the positive changes we make in our region are shaped by the people who live and work here.

GB: How is the authority improving the way it calculates carbon cost of transport and infrastructure projects in response to climate emergency?

Mayor Brabin: As part of our response to the climate and environment emergency, the Combined Authority is creating a new Carbon Impact Assessment which will enable us to develop a robust new approach. This will look at the emissions produced when projects are constructed as well as their predicted lifetime emissions. It’s vital that we ensure the Combined Authority is investing in the right infrastructure for the future to enable us to meet our net zero target.

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