“We are seeing genuine change”

Rachel Waggett works as a Principal Environment Officer and developes climate strategies for the Liverpool City Region.

There is still far too much reliance on cars, and far too many homes have gas-fired heating: when it comes to climate action, the situation across the Channel is often very similar to Germany’s. British cities and municipalities face the same challenges as their German counterparts: they have to motivate local citizens to take action on the climate, and they also have to encourage property owners to undertake the necessary retrofitting. And all the while, they have to answer one question: who is going to pay for this at a time of financial constraints?

But of course, every local authority is special and unique and brings its own particular challenges and opportunities to the monumental task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. That’s certainly the case for the Liverpool City Region. This Combined Authority was formed by six local authorities, including Liverpool City, Halton, St Helens, Knowsley, Sefton and Wirral, in 2014. The Liverpool City Region is home to around 1.6 million people and, since 2017, has elected its own Metro Mayor. It has also set itself a very high level of climate ambition: the region aims to become zero-carbon by 2040 – 10 years earlier than the UK’s target of net zero by 2050. For the Liverpool City Region, this is a firm policy commitment.

“We will only stay on track if we set ourselves ambitious goals”

Rachel Waggett’s job is to develop climate strategies for the Liverpool City Region and ensure that climate issues are embedded in the Combined Authority’s policies. She also shares her expertise with her colleagues throughout the Combined Authority as they integrate climate issues into their own areas of work. Currently the Combined Authority’s Principal Environment Officer, she was the first to hold this post. “The net zero emissions target for 2040 is embedded in everything we do – it involves all the departments and is in everyone’s in-tray,” she says. Does she think the target is achievable? “Maybe not. But we will only stay on track if we set ourselves courageous and ambitious goals. Setting far-off goals just encourages people to lean back on the issue because they assume they still have plenty of time.”

The Liverpool City Region has understood the urgent need for action on climate change – partly because it is a coastal region and therefore at risk from sea level rise, but also because the region itself has already experienced some of the impacts of climate change, including flooding. “This awareness of the urgency is reflected in our Annual Reviews, which always look at the impacts of our work in terms of reaching net zero. So this target is central to decision-making.” But that’s not all: the Combined Authority has a highly motivated workforce, as Rachel Waggett explains. “Up until a few years ago, climate issues probably just added to their workload in many cases. But today, we are seeing genuine change. People understand that protecting the climate is something that should have been tackled long ago. They want to contribute and so they turn to us for support. They are genuinely interested in accessing our knowledge – and that’s very good to see and experience.”

The legal framework doesn’t help

Cars and gas-fired heating are just two of the many challenges facing the Liverpool City Region. “When it comes to fuel for heating and mobility, we are very strongly embedded in a fossil-powered system,” Rachel Waggett says. “It is difficult to persuade local people to manage without their cars, for example. Of course, that’s partly because it is much more convenient for them to drive everywhere.” Retrofitting the region’s buildings is another major challenge. “We have so many local buildings that were constructed more than a century ago and have little or no insulation. And almost every home has gas heating. Based on cost alone, efficiency measures and replacement heating would pay for themselves.” Here too, the UK faces similar challenges to Germany’s: funds and skilled workers are in short supply. “And the legal framework doesn’t help. The ban on the installation of new gas heating systems is not due to come into effect until 2025, and as things stand, it will cost around £12 billion (almost €14 billion; editor’s note) to decarbonise homes in the region.”

The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be

On top of that, national legislation is often a constraining factor, as Rachel Waggett explains: “We are a highly centralised country with equally centralised legislation. Unfortunately, that leaves little scope for changes at the local or regional level. We have to focus mainly on incentivising climate action – there’s very little opportunity to do this through regulation, for example.” In her view, the measures being taken at the national level fall a long way short of what is required. “Governments are not making enough effort, that’s for sure. And yet all the government advisors have been saying for a very long time that action is needed now. We need the government to make a clear and rapid commitment to climate action. I realise that politics is often about short-term decisions because it’s always about winning the next election, and it takes a brave politician to make decisions that look to the future. But as much as I am mindful of the many storms that our government has had to weather in recent years, and the difficult situation overall: we need brave politics, and we need it now. When it comes to climate action, we need to think about the long term. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be – and the harder our job will become.” And of course, Rachel Waggett herself is attempting to bring influence to bear on the government. “Among other things, we do so by showing that we want to take action – that there is genuine willingness on our part.”

For Rachel Waggett, more action by the government means more funding for climate action. Unlike the situation in Germany, there are few overarching programmes that can be accessed to fund climate action by local authorities. “At present, the applications have to be submitted by individuals – and that creates difficulties as well. We need adequate and broad-scale funding to decarbonise mobility and buildings through long-term, well-funded support schemes. Otherwise, the government’s 2050 target will be meaningless. We know we could take more action and we are actively seeking more powers and funding from national Government to enable us to deliver.”

Only 45 per cent of people are aware of what action they can take

The Liverpool City Region has already achieved a 40 per cent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions since 2005 – mainly by decarbonising electricity consumption. “We are fortunate to be right by the sea so we are already benefiting from a huge amount of offshore wind and developing really innovative projects like Mersey River Tidal Power. Businesses here in the region are already working ontechnology of the future, such as producing green hydrogen.” However, energy consumption in the region has continued to increase. “From a survey conducted in 2021, we know that 88 per cent of local people support the work being done on protecting the climate. But only 45 per cent know what action they can take themselves. We have to close this knowledge gap.” It is also important to foreground the benefits of climate action – including better air quality, health promotion through active mobility such as walking and cycling, and the economic gains of a green industrial revolution.

And of course, there is still a lot of work to do on other issues as well. “We are investing heavily in the cycling infrastructure and express lanes for buses, for example. And more investment is needed – in low-emission buses and electric vehicles for carsharing, but also in affordable public transport. It is also important to build electricity grid capacity in preparation for the additional demand.”

Small changes make a big difference

Rachel Waggett has been working to promote sustainability for almost 30 years. Last year, she experienced a major breakthrough. She wrote a paper showing how the Liverpool City Region can stop generating greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. “I have written an endless number of these papers. But for the first time, I realised that I didn’t need to include a section on ‘why we have to act’. The feeling that people no longer have to be persuaded gives me a great deal of hope – especially when many people are not having an easy time of it.” She particularly enjoys enabling the public to embrace more sustainability and to do more for the environment and the climate. “That moment, when you see that someone has understood what it is about – when it’s clear that they will go ahead and make change happen – you can’t put a price on that. Even if they only make small changes. The point is that small changes make a big difference. And many small changes make a very big difference.”

For Rachel Waggett, protecting the climate is also about fairness towards those who are feeling the effects of climate change much more severely even though they did very little to cause it in the first place. This applies to low-consuming citizens in the UK, but particularly to the Global South. “We have to do the right thing. And that means that the Global North must stand up for the Global South.”

A group that is keen to make a difference

Collaboration with other local authorities on climate issues is also very important for the Liverpool City Region – especially with nearby authorities that face very similar challenges, such as Manchester. “We are all post-industrial communities. We share the same challenges, such as contaminated land. It is very helpful to engage in regular dialogue, to discuss ideas and share knowledge.” Our Officers are also in contact with local authorities in Europe. “Although unfortunately we can’t participate in European projects in the same way, after Brexit, we can still talk and learn from each other.”

She therefore particularly appreciates the dialogue within the framework of a project for the German Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development that the Oeko-Institut is currently delivering in cooperation with EBP Deutschland GmbH. Eight local authorities in Germany and other countries are being supported to produce a sustainability report. “Sustainability reporting undoubtedly helps to drive climate action because it requires you to show what you’ve done – or not done.” For Rachel Waggett, discussing these issues with other cities and municipalities is a very valuable and positive experience. “We face many of the same challenges and I learn a lot. It is also nice to get a sense of how much we have already achieved in the Liverpool City Region. And we should not underestimate how important it is to belong to a group of people who want to make a difference. That’s very positive and empowering.”

Rachel Waggett has been a Principal Environment Officer for the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority since April 2020. Before that, she served in various roles, including Climate Change Manager and Special Projects Manager, at Warrington Borough Council for almost 10 years, working on the decarbonisation of infrastructures, greenhouse gas emissions reductions in many other sectors, and climate change adaptation. Sustainability issues also featured in her previous work as Associate Director of the Advanced Design and Sustainability Group at AECOM in the north of England and as a consultant for ECD Energy and Environment.

More information

Rachel Waggett on Twitter

Liverpool City Region on Twitter

The Liverpool City Region website

Liverpool City Region Combined Authority 2021/22 Annual Review

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