On February 13th 2019, Tywyn became the third town in Wales, and the first in Gwynedd county, to declare a climate emergency following the unanimous decision to back the motion by Tywyn Town Council.
More than 700 locals signed the petition to support the motion, including Sir John Houghton, former co-chair of the Science Working Group of IPCC, and nearly 200 students from Ysgol Uwchradd Tywyn (Tywyn High School).
But why did Tywyn declare a climate emergency and what we are going to do next? Let’s start by setting the scene.
Planet Earth is experiencing a Climate Emergency
For hundreds of thousands of years, global temperatures have been kept steady by a blanket of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. During this time, this healthy blanket was sustained by a dynamic balance of gases being added to the air (say, by animals breathing out carbon dioxide) and removed from it (typically by photosynthesis restoring carbon to the ground).
Since the Industrial Revolution, however, human beings have been adding extra greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels (first coal, then oil and gas). This has brought about the fantastic technological civilisation we now live in but, at the same time, has caused a steady thickening of that insulating blanket. So…
The planet is getting hotter.
Climate Science says that global average temperature has already risen by nearly 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. Even at this level, the world has already experienced climate impacts including glacial and polar ice melting; increased floods, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes; and rising extinctions of numerous species. As temperatures rise further, these effects will get worse.
In the Paris agreement on climate change in 2015, the international community agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5 °C by the end of the century. You may wonder why half a degree is so important, so here is a comprehensive infographic from the World Resource Institute that explains the difference between a 1.5˚C and 2˚C warming.
Last October, a Special Report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stated that, at current rates, humanity could go on adding excess GHGs to the atmosphere for just twelve years before this target is exceeded.
That was the headline.
But the IPCC Special Report also lays out the vast array of social, political, cultural, economic and technological changes that meeting this target would entail, abandoning the assumption that only those in power can make change, and that significant action in one sector or region means less action is needed elsewhere. This level of transition requires accelerated action across the world, at all levels of society.
Limiting warming to 1.5 °C will not only require lifestyle changes on a range of issues including diet, personal travel and home heating in a relatively short period of time, but will also means rapid policy change in the built environment, transport and many other sectors.
Let’s be clear on this. To avoid the worst impacts of the current climate crisis, the nations of the world have to invest in massive programs to simultaneously ‘power down’ energy demand, whilst ‘powering up’ renewable energy supplies. These programs, achievable with existing technologies, will be on a scale at least as big as the re-armament processes of the Second World War or the US Space Program of the 1960s.
Governments in democratic nations are extremely unlikely to put such programs in place without public consent. This is why we brought our motion to declare a climate emergency to our town council.
We see it as an opportunity for the people of Tywyn to give public voice to their concerns, not to say fears, regarding this issue; to state their preparedness to make what changes they can at personal and community levels; and to ask that local and national governments enact the rapid policy changes required to restore climate emissions to a point of balance as soon as possible.
What are we going to do now?
Greener Tywyn wants to support a community-led consultation to develop an action plan to:
- reduce Tywyn’s Greenhouse gas emissions to net zero as soon as possible;
- make Tywyn more resilient to climate impacts;
- maximise local benefits of these actions in other sectors such as health, agriculture, transport and the economy;
We would like to assemble a group of committed local people (including some of the town councillors) to come up with a plan to assess Tywyn’s current “carbon footprint” that is to say; build up a picture of how much fuel and energy the town consumes and how much renewable energy the area produces in order to understand our own carbon balance. The plan might also look at things like the condition of local housing stock in terms of heat insulation or possible locations for electric car charging points and so on.
Using this picture, the group could propose local measures to upgrade the town: These could include an ‘Energy Local’ purchasing co-op, car clubs, planting more trees or putting householders in touch with advice on how better to keep heat in their homes.
At the same time, the group should look at the possible impacts that climate change could have on the town: are there any areas at risk from flooding due to high seas; how robust is the town’s water supply in the event of drought brought on by the increasingly hotter drier summers predicted by climate models? What needs to be done in response?
Lastly, but not least, we should also look at the benefits of these actions here and now. Areas to consider might be:
- Health – lower vehicle emissions mean lower pollution, lower asthma etc.; better insulated homes mean less condensation, mould, less respiratory illness; riding a bike or walking to work or the shops instead of driving improves the condition of your heart.
- Jobs: In the US in 2018, the fastest growing profession was Wind Turbine technician; to reduce heating in our homes, we will need plumbers and builders to do the work; if summers get hotter and less people take plane flights, maybe Tywyn will need more workers in tourism.
Then there’s the increased resilience against climate impacts offered by renewable micro-grids and improvements to peoples’ lives if there was better public transport available.
We are not alone
All this sounds like a lot of work but we won’t be doing it alone.
First, declaring a climate emergency allowed us to join with the councils of Powys, Machynlleth, Aberystwyth, and over twenty other places in the UK, along with towns and cities in Canada, Australia and the USA (all in all, representing an estimated 25 million people) in trying to persuade the wider world of the existential gravity of this problem.
They will all be undertaking similar exercises at the same time, and no doubt we will be able to share ideas with our nearest neighbours.
Just up the road, we have Ecodyfi, the Centre of Alternative Technology and zero-carbon Britain that could help us research a model of “Sustainable Tywyn”. We could discuss with Renew Wales how they might support this process.
We could attract support from the Welsh Government’s Place Planning initiative, and the Welsh Government Energy Service might help in the production of a local energy report.
We are aware that this is a very ambitious project and that we have only had time to sketch out a plan of action. We’re also aware that climate change is a difficult topic. But we believe that by bringing people, businesses and organisations together, we can put this plan into action.
Greener Tywyn started as a small group of people who realised that they shared the same concerns about the environment and wanted to do something about it. We managed to do a lot in one year, more than we could have ever done individually.
Together, with the town and its people, we can do much more.
Let’s finish off with a story
On 24th January, at a meeting of Powys County Council, Cllr Elwyn Vaughan, put forward the motion to declare their climate emergency, by telling the sad tale of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the land to the West that sank beneath the sea due to the carelessness of the watcher, Seithennin, who was drunk and failed to close the dykes and stop the tide flowing onto the fertile land.
Legend has it that the fossilised peat beds on Tywyn beach are remnants of that sunken kingdom. Cllr Vaughan, who represents Glantwymyn, explained: “Hopefully people today won’t be the same as Seithennin, drunk and blind to the threat to our environment. “ and that “we need to think about what sort of legacy we will be leaving to future generations.”
Links and resources
- David Attenborough addressing the World Economic Forum
- Up to date assessment of how the UK may change
- Multi-solving: Methodology and examples to enhance co-benefits in sectors such as health, transport and local economy
- 2018 Emissions Gap Report