Council leader hopes Newcastle can lead world's fight against climate change as COP26 begins

The COP26 climate change conference got underway in Glasgow on Sunday Credit: PA

Newcastle's council leader wants the city to help lead the world's fight against climate change by finding the answers to make homes carbon neutral.

Nick Forbes says there is a "huge opportunity" for Tyneside innovators to discover ways to drastically cut households' energy consumption - which account for a third of Newcastle's carbon emissions.

The Labour chief will be travelling to Glasgow for the international climate conference, which started on Sunday, and has urged the government to take cities' role in fighting the environmental crisis seriously.

Coun Forbes says the ambitious objective will not be scaled back despite stumbling blocks caused by the Covid pandemic.

A key part of making that goal a reality will be a dramatic shift in household emissions, something which the council leader is keen to see major progress on - though the estimated cost could be as much as £5bn in Newcastle alone.

He said: "What we need is a really clear idea of how you make an ordinary terraced house or flat net zero. That is going to include better loft insulation, under-floor insulation, possibly cladding, possibly solar panels.

"There is a real question of how owner-occupiers can pay for that on top of their mortgage.

"Part of the conversation we are having [with other city leaders] is what would be the equivalent of a mortgage to make your home net-zero and how can that be funded to pay out for stuff which will be of benefit in the long-term, but a drain on family finances in the short term."

Nick Forbes

Coun Forbes added: "There is a huge opportunity for us. Nobody has cracked how to do this in an urban environment at scale and in Newcastle we are good at innovating, at trialling things, seeing what works.

"I would be really keen on us being the first place in the world to get the answers and redesign our streets for net-zero. That means communities need to be up for change, it means bringing in resources to make it happen, and we need to coordinate and promote it. 

"But if we are able to do it, it would create thousands of jobs and bring huge economic prosperity. The net-zero agenda is not about stopping people doing things, it is about creating opportunities for future generations."

Newcastle City Council is aiming to be net-zero by 2030 Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The Labour council leader said that it would be a "huge missed opportunity" if world leaders focus solely on slashing carbon emissions in high-polluting nations like India and China at COP26, without discussing how to give cities and towns the power and resources to deliver local changes to tackle climate change.

Coun Forbes added: "One of the challenges we have had as city leaders is getting the government to take our role in net-zero seriously. 

"COP26 needs to be the start of a different conversation between local government and government in terms of how we can work more closely in partnership.

"I have had some decent conversations with government ministers about that role, but I am not convinced there is a clear view yet that local places are part of the solution and local leadership is going to be essential to getting us to net zero as a country." 

While the Covid pandemic has presented problems such as deterring people from using public transport and reducing recycling rates in Newcastle, Coun Forbes insists the city will not back away from its 2030 ambitions.

After organising a meeting of city representatives from across the world during this year's G7 summit, he says that local officials are "crystal clear" in thinking that national net-zero targets are "too late and too far away".

Newcastle's highly-praised net-zero plan includes proposals to up electric car usage and create a "15-minute city" where everyone has access to goods, services and leisure within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride of their home.

But the document itself warned that, even if the city completed all of the 150 actions set out, it would only go 73% towards the net-zero emissions goal.

Of the 2030 target date, Coun Forbes said: "It is ambitious because we need to drive the pace of change. It is a bit like the space race. When America and Russia announced that they were both going to land men on the moon they didn't say 'and here is our detailed plan to do it'. They said they wanted to do it by the end of the decade and that timescale forced the development, innovation, creativity that got a man on the moon.

"Forcing the scale of change by setting a timescale is really ambitious, but if we said it was okay to take 20 years rather than 10 we would not be fully grasping the state of the emergency and it would not be at the forefront of people's minds as our most pressing issue."