Borders council chiefs set to declare state of emergency for climate

Council chiefs in the Borders are set to declare a climate emergency, following the lead of more than half the UK’s local authorities to date. 

By Joseph Anderson, Local Democracy Reporter
Tuesday, 22nd September 2020, 1:46 pm
Extinction Rebellion activists staging a demonstration outside a Scottish Borders Council meeting in January.
Extinction Rebellion activists staging a demonstration outside a Scottish Borders Council meeting in January.

Bosses at Scottish Borders Council have been urged to make that declaration by environmentalists in the region for months, with Extinction Rebellion activists regularly staging protests outside meetings and demanding that more urgent action is taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions here. 

An open letter was also presented to the council stating that the authority’s commitment to embed sustainable development in its strategies, policies and services, though commendable, does not go far enough. 

Heeding those pleas, councillors are now being urged by their officers to declare a climate emergency at their next full meeting, being held this Friday, September 25. 

A report to councillors ahead of the meeting reads: “As a region, the Borders has some distinct challenges and opportunities in reducing and, ultimately, ceasing its contribution to climate change and in living with the effects of climate change that it is already too late to pre-empt.

“On the one hand, there are significant challenges in decarbonising transport across a large rural area, decarbonising off-grid heating systems without exacerbating fuel poverty and decarbonising activity in industrial installations and businesses across the region without negatively impacting on employment and productivity.

“On the other hand, the Borders is well placed to capitalise on the country’s requirement for bio-energy and carbon sequestration with nature-based solutions such as woodland creation and peatland restoration, alongside carbon capture and storage, all acting as negative emissions solutions. 

“There is much good work already under way, but much more is needed. Business as usual will not put us on the trajectory to reduce emissions and transform our economy. 

“Action will need to be scaled up across the region in order to meet the demands of our present predicament.

“We are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with hotter and dryer summers, warmer and wetter winters, more intense rainfall and more flooding.

“More frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves and floods are likely to cause disruption across the region, with substantial increases in the likelihood of coastal flooding in low-lying areas.”

Council leader Shona Haslam said: “At the first meeting of the council’s new sustainable development committee back in January, officers were tasked to bring forward a report to council to set out the next steps towards driving down the council’s carbon emissions even further and taking a leading role within the Borders to respond and react to climate change. 

“Clearly, events since then have delayed it coming before councillors, but I welcome the opportunity to debate it now. 

“Any declaration of a climate emergency cannot be a hollow gesture. It must be backed up by action and it is essential that a suitable target is put in place and a plan developed to reach it. 

“Over many years, the council has made significant changes in how it operates, builds and improves facilities and works generally as part of its commitment to reducing its impact on the climate. 

“This has included a huge reduction in household waste sent to landfill, an estimated saving of over 74 tonnes of CO2 in 2019-20 from our pool car fleet and a street-lighting programme which has replaced 19,000 lights with LED technology and has reduced both maintenance and energy use.

“We also have an increasingly electric or hybrid vehicle fleet, have installed electric vehicle-charging points across the region and have developed our sustainable procurement charter.

“A print project with our IT partner CGI has to date saved 38 tonnes of CO2 from reduced paper use.

“We must, and will, do more, and we also need to make the most of the council’s role as a community leader to encourage our partners and communities to also step up their efforts.” 

Galashiels councillor Sandy Aitchison, the authority’s executive member for sustainable development, added: “It is important to emphasise that while areas of the Borders are absolutely at risk should the pace of climate change not decrease, there are many opportunities here for us to play our part in worldwide action to make a difference.

“As a rural area, there are opportunities for nature-based solutions for creating bio-energy and also carbon removal and capture, including woodland creation and peatland restoration, and we can all take steps to reduce, reuse and recycle more and make changes to our lives which minimise our impact on this increasingly-fragile planet.

“The sustainable development committee will have a key role in overseeing the development and implementation of an ambitious action plan for the council. 

“While the further changes and investments that the council will have to make will not happen overnight, it is absolutely essential that we increase the rate and scale of change as soon as possible.”

That proposed declaration has been welcomed by Extinction Rebellion’s Borders group.

Regional activist Kate Duncan said: “Scottish Borders Council may have got here a bit later than other councils, but we applaud that, in the midst of the Covid crisis, they have kept their eyes on the climate change ball.

“They have not yet committed themselves to a net-zero target and we urge them to heed the advice of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“In 2018, it said that by 2030, global warming must be no more than 1.5C. Since then, heating has increased ever faster.

“To avoid catastrophic, irreversible changes to our planet, we need to aim for the lower target.

“To quote Greta Thunberg, ‘act as if your house is on fire, because it is’.”