An Edinburgh budget for the climate emergency

Edinburgh needs to back ambitious climate targets with a climate emergency budget, argues Gavin Corbett.

A growing number of public bodies have declared a climate emergency, City of Edinburgh Council among them. And for good reason. From the United Nations to Sir David Attenborough, there have been stark warnings that climate change is the greatest threat facing humankind, with particular devastating impacts on the poorest people and on the many species with which we share the planet.

Edinburgh has set a target to be zero carbon by 2030. This is ambitious, commendable and necessary. It is necessary because of the threat posed by climate change but also because a zero carbon Edinburgh is a better Edinburgh: more equal; less congested; healthier; and greener. It’s the kind of Edinburgh which attracts the investment we need to achieve those ambitions.

And the investment needed is significant. It’s been estimated that investment of between £4-8 billion could achieve around 70% of the target, on a cost-recovery basis. These are eye-watering sums but when they are set beside the £1.33 billion City Region Deal, the £2.5 billion plan to invest in council housing or the £8 billion Lothian Pension Fund, they are not over the horizon.

But it is why targets are not enough. Targets need actions. Actions need funding priority. That funding priority needs to be on a big scale like the sums above. And it also needs to be the focus of more immediate decisions like the ones before the City Council this week as it sets its annual budget.

The context is sadly familiar. As it stands, the grant offer from the Scottish Government gives a flat cash settlement to Edinburgh. Even with council tax used to its full extent, this still leaves the council with a £35m hole, given expanding numbers in schools at one end of the age spectrum and the need to provide care to a rising number of older people at the other. In such a context, finding money to turn climate targets into budget proposals isn’t easy. On the other hand, get it right, and schools can be spending on jotters not fuel bills, or on fresh food and tap water, not plastic packaging. More walking and cycling means healthier people and less congestion. Protection and enhancement of natural spaces means better wellbeing.

So the Green budget for 2020 is a budget for a climate emergency, a budget for a zero carbon city, based on seven themes:

  • Changing travel: with new investment in electric vehicles and cargo bikes in the council fleet; expansion of secure cycle storage; more charging points; and development of a workplace parking levy scheme to fund transport improvements.
  • Energy transformation: with energy saving measures in council buildings; support for energy works in private flats and private tenancies; and helping Edinburgh Solar Co-op expand its work.
  • Waste reduction: with greater public engagement in waste prevention including headline schemes like an Edinburgh Coffee Cup.
  • Protecting nature: with money to trial alternatives to chemical weed-killers; and to improve natural habitats in the city.
  • Food for Life: with proposals reducing plastic packaging in school lunches and options to improve food quality.
  • Trees for Life: with resources to double the street trees programme and put hard cash into a “Million Trees” project
  • Community action on Climate Change: with a new focus for neighbourhood funds on community-based zero carbon projects

The total value of this package is over £5m. But the Green budget also rejects planned cuts to school music, libraries and sports facilities and has allocated up to £11m extra for “Wave 4” schools in Wester Hailes and Liberton.  It seeks alternative savings in a number of ways, from ending free lunches for councillors on full council days to cancelling funding for the winter festivals once the current contract with Underbelly is up in 2022.

One of the distinctive Green proposals relates to investing in specialist staff to tap into external funding. Last year, our budget successfully proposed a specialist empty homes officer, who is now in post, with the scope to increase council tax income. Building on that, this year we have proposed 3 posts: one on zero carbon funding; one on developing workplace parking levy proposals; and one on home energy efficiency, all of whom can secure funds for council priorities many times in excess of the costs.

At the same time, our budget recognises the need to capture public imagination on how Edinburgh would improve as a zero carbon city. We recognise just how much people of all ages and backgrounds cherish our green spaces and wildlife havens and we see so much potential to tap the potential of “Citizen Science” to celebrate and enhance wildlife in our city. The return of breeding otters to the heart of Edinburgh may be a springboard for a Natural Edinburgh project which sees wildlife protection as important here in the city as in some of the remotest parts of Scotland.

So, this week, I really hope that the political agreement we saw when declaring a climate emergency also results in agreement about the need for a climate budget.