I have been involved in various climate campaigns and research projects for the last 10 years and have often found myself in rooms full of well meaning, reasonably wealthy, middle aged white people. They are usually the Heads of Sustainability or Corporate Responsibility in their places of work – banks, local authorities, consultancies, funding institutions. Wanting to do something about climate change, feeling the urgency (somewhat), well meaning but with limited power. The wider culture in their institution isn’t one that is aligned towards meaningful climate action. And even though I know these people as individuals are good intentioned, I rarely am able to shake the feeling that the reasons they care about climate action are different from why I care about it. There is no real mention of Global South communities or any deep sense that extreme climatic events will impact the quality of life of people in the Global North too, with all it’s repercussions on our food supply and sharpest impacts on the most vulnerable people.
Somethings have changed and somethings have not. I’ve been away from the “climate conference scene” for a year. Firstly, travelling on my bike across Europe during the continent’s hottest summer in recent years, dodging unusual thunderstorms, struggling to find lakes to swim in, and witnessing field after field of failed harvest. Then on my return being one of the Stansted 15 defendants, on trial for an action whose origins lie in a group of environmental direct action folks coming together to use their skills and knowledge in solidarity with global south migrants. My first foray back into the suited and booted climate conference scene after this break was the Covenant of Mayors Investment Forum – Energy Efficiency Finance Market Place in Brussels last week.
Myself and my colleague Rowan found ourselves in the gaudy ballroom of a hotel in the European Commission district of Brussels, hobnobbing with officers from city councils across Europe, bankers, technology companies, EU officers.We were there to learn what current best practice is regarding city authority led climate action for mPower, our flagship EU funded 4 year peer-learning programme whose aim is to facilitate the development and replication of innovative municipal energy system projects which maximise citizen control and benefit.
There wasn’t much (or any?) mention of the impacts of climate change on the Global South and Europe’s responsibility. But what has changed – and I really felt this – is that white middle class people are scared now. They finally believe that climate change is a thing that will impact their lives in substantial ways. And this belief is clearly translating into action – from city authorities, investors, private technology firms and the EU. The conference, in fact, began with a keynote speech that was both pessimistic and optimistic. We were told that the EU is most likely going to miss most of its 2030 climate targets but progress is being made to meet its 2050 climate targets. That every Thursday morning, tens of thousands of young people have been marching, passing outside the Crowne Plaza, where our conference was taking place, protesting against government inaction on climate change. That people all around the world were unhappy because their governments were not taking climate change seriously. That there was bottom up support now for strong political action on climate. Perhaps weird climate events whose frequency is increasing is finally waking Europe up – the February heatwave that was basking Europe in Spring like temperatures way too early in the year was mentioned more than once.
Young people fed up with government inaction marching in Brussels – February 2019
There was a lot of mention of targets – which gave me the sense that the Paris agreement is making a difference, and the EU 2030 and 2050 climate targets are giving city led action structure, direction and focus. The most exciting presentations were from city authorities – about what they are currently doing and how they got to this point. The cities who attended the conference are signatories of the Covenant of Mayors, an initiative that describes itself as the “world’s largest movement for local climate and energy actions”. You can browse through of the best practice examples collected by the Covenant here.
This was a conference on investment and finance – so of course there were many mentions of “competitiveness” and “making the business case to investors” for energy transition initiatives. I could feel myself hit my Peak Cynicism at such mentions, and wondering whether green capitalism is the best we can hope from such a crowd. And that may well be true to a great extent but I was also reminded at various points over the two days that we don’t have to settle for green capitalism. A common question to city authorities was: “how do you make the business case to investors” – and I smiled when one city officer from Rotterdam shrugged his shoulder and said: “we funded the project ourselves”. With his shrugging the officer asserted that there is another way – a route where the financing of climate projects could be undertaken for the common good not in order to generate profits for private investors. Of course not all city authorities’ have the financial power to do so but it is encouraging when those who do make something of their power for their citizens.
But what was most encouraging was that many city authorities gave examples of projects where they are engaging with their local communities – and stressed the importance of doing so. As part of the mPower programme, we will specifically be working with decision makers in city authorities to embed, at a deeper level, energy transition projects that have energy democratic and justice principles. mPower will tackle all sorts of pertinent issues – how to attract finance for example, how to deploy smart grids or districting heating systems, how to conduct large scale retrofits and so on – but at the heart of our approach and political vision is to facilitate greater and more meaningful democratic control and ownership.
I’ll probably always be a bit cynical of such conferences – but I tend to think a healthy dollop of cynicism is a good thing. I heard much fear and ambition in that room over two days – but I left wondering whether this will translate into meaningful climate action or get stuck at “making the business case”. I probably will wonder this for a while, taking solace that through mPower we at least have an opportunity to work directly with city authorities to go beyond green capitalism.