Edinburgh’s Green group of councillors has two new co-convenors. Here they set out what they see as being the eco challenges facing their city.
Edinburgh currently has a three-planet lifestyle. As a whole, the city consumes resources and produces waste at three times the planet’s capacity. That can’t go on. It is, quite literally, not sustainable.
And it is not even as if that level of consumption is justified by all the benefits it brings. Wealth is very unevenly shared in Edinburgh. The city has produced its own strains – from the air pollution and congestion caused by excess traffic to significant problems of mental health and poor physical health, linked to diet and exercise.
The good news is that the best cities in the world have found that there is a win-win. Charting a course to a sustainable city is also the pathway to a healthier, happier, more socially just city. One planet living is better living. So what does Edinburgh need to do to join the best of those cities?
We already know that the city is consulting on a city vision for 2050 and one of the strongest emerging themes is for Edinburgh to be the greenest city, or to be “carbon-neutral”. So there is already an appetite in the capital to be more ambitious.
For example, on transport, the aim should be to dramatically reduce the pressure on our roads by expanding public transport and cycling/walking networks. Public transport expansion needs both tram extension and continuing the excellent work by Lothian Buses to expand low-emission buses. Over the next year the council will come to a decision about taking the tram to Newhaven, which we believe is the right thing to do, but only with a design which protects the interest of people who walk and cycle. In the longer term, cities like Zurich show the huge difference that a full network of trams or light rail can make to people’s transport choices.
And we need to be equally ambitious on active travel. Manchester, under Walking and Cycling Commissioner Chris Boardman, has just upped the game by announcing a big expansion of dedicated or quiet cycle and walking routes. Edinburgh has its own plans to create better links across the city but too many are bogged down in delays. Delivery is what matters. On leaving the house in the morning, the first and most natural choice should be “how can I get where I am going by bike or foot” without having to worry about navigating through a dangerous junction.
Over in Copenhagen, with a similar climate to Edinburgh, they have discovered huge benefits for health of decades of investment in continuous walking and cycling routes.
And what place is there for cars? Fewer vehicles (that includes vans and lorries) means less congestion and pollution: good for everyone, especially for those such as disabled people, or occasions when a car is the best choice.
But let’s make it much easier to car-share or use a car-pool (as in Stockholm) with massive reductions in parking conflict. And let’s follow the lead of near neighbours like Dundee in building the support for the electric vehicle transformation.
Transport is such an important issue because of the way cities are designed. Cities where jobs and homes are miles apart generate traffic almost in spite of the transport choices people would like to make. Edinburgh starts from a good place. We are a small and compact city and one where the city centre is still lived in. That is why Green councillors and MSPs have led on ways to tackle the holiday-let explosion, whether through the Airbnb phenomenon or the expansion of hotels. All cities need to welcome visitors but not at the cost of ripping the heart out of our city centre.
It is also why the planning system needs to work harder to promote the kind of development that allows people to live, work, shop and use services in close proximity or to connect in ways that don’t require lots of journeys. From high-quality broadband, to super-energy-efficient buildings, to ensuring that there are green spaces and community facilities within easy reach, there is a central role for the planning system and, in particular, the next Local Development Plan to play in developing our one planet Edinburgh.
That is also about tackling poverty and disadvantage as it is always our lowest income residents who suffer most from fuel poverty or loss of community services or bleak local environments.
Sometimes, doing the right thing is not the most visible. Getting planning right is as much about what happens years away as now. So too our work on seeking to get Lothian Pension Fund to switch investment away from fossil-fuel companies. It is not something people are going to see.
On the other hand, litter, waste and, in particular plastic pollution are all too visible. BBC’s Blue Planet II has been a trigger for action on plastic pollution and we want to continue to champion an end to single use plastics. From pushing for bottle refill schemes and public water supplies, to getting plastic out of school lunches to investing in social enterprises like the Shrub and Remakery there is so much that the city could do transform the way things are done, with the added bonus of reduced pressure on bin pick-ups and cleaner streets. We could go on: on food, on the quality of our river, canal and sea water, on eco-schools. But you get the picture. We can’t promise a One Planet Edinburgh in one year alone. But we can make the right choices now that make it our future.