Green Shoots: Why Harrogate should be at the vanguard of tackling climate change
Last updated Aug 20, 2021
Professor Piers Forster

Did you know that Harrogate played a key role in the major IPCC “code red for humanity” climate change report that was published last week? The document was discussed around the globe and warned of climate catastrophe unless we act now.

Renowned climate scientist Piers Forster has lived in Harrogate since 2005 and was one of the main authors of the report. He’s a director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate and Professor of Physical Climate Change at the University of Leeds.

The report was a global effort and each line had to be painstakingly signed off by all 195 countries that are part of the IPCC.

Much of this was done by Prof Forster from his kitchen in Harrogate.

He said:

“That bit was quite tiring. There were 3am calls to talk to places like China and Brazil. It was bizarre.”

Extreme weather events

As we go about our everyday lives in the Harrogate district it might feel like we are insulated from the most frightening consequences of climate change like wildfires in Australia or landslides in China.

But Prof Forster warns that extreme weather events, such as the January floods in Boroughbridge, will become much more common unless we take immediate action.

Flooding in Boroughbridge. January 2021.

He said:

“This country gets off gets off quite lightly from the effects of climate change but we are absolutely beginning to see changes. We’re warmed by the gulf stream here a lot, but it might collapse. That will have a very big effect on our weather.”

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Consumption lifestyle

Harrogate is one of the most affluent towns in the UK and Harrogatonians have a stereotype for enjoying an expensive way of life.

So is our consumption-based capitalist lifestyle part of the problem?

A web tool created by researchers at the University of Leeds suggests it is.

It looks at things like transport use, energy consumption and flights taken and estimates the average carbon footprint of a person living in a particular postcode, grading it from A+ to F-.

Harrogate fares badly with Duchy getting the lowest score of F-, meaning its residents are in the 1% of people across the UK with the biggest carbon footprint.

Credit – the University of Leeds

Prof Forster says:

“On a lot of categories we do a lot worse in our town, particularly in the Duchy. It’s very nice of course, but we’re one of the worst in the country for getting on aeroplanes.

“We also drive a car that’s too big, have a home that’s too big and we heat by gas. It’s up to us to begin to make the changes”.

Planning paradox

Prof Forster describes both Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council‘s green credentials as “certainly not terrible” but thinks they are hamstrung by a planning system that does not work in the best interests of the environment.

He points to the paradox of NYCC and HBC promoting active travel schemes in the town centre, whilst vast housing developments are approved on the outskirts of town where residents have no choice but to use a car.

He said:

“They absolutely do want to get to net zero. We all have to get there, but I do think the biggest issue is they dont have authority, investment or power to really make the big changes they want to make.

“The biggest issue is with planning. The way the system works and you do not necessarily get the best outcome for the environment.”

Harrogate Spring Water

One planning application that captured the imagination of the town was Harrogate Spring Water’s controversial advance on Rotary Wood to expand its bottling plant.

In the days leading up the planning committee, Prof Forster intervened to produce his own research paper that said the water company vastly underestimated the number of replacement trees needed to achieve carbon parity with the current woodland.

He believes the refusal was the kind of local victory that needs to be replicated across the country if we are to turn a corner on climate change.

“If you don’t like something, it’s your opportunity to get involved like i did with the spring water application. It was an impressive decision by the council’s planning committee because they went against the norms. There needs to be more and the council needs to be empowered to make these decisions”.

Changes in our community

A key message of the report is catastrophe can be averted if the world acts fast. Prof Forster hopes discussions around the climate in Harrogate can be less divisive, as seen with the Beech Grove Low Traffic Neighbourhood debate.

He said:

“It’s sad as often the first reaction is eurgh!

“We need to learn by doing. We can’t just have endless consultation and reports. We have to try and get on and make changes. 

“This big international report has to be translated into changes we want to see in our community.

“We have to try and get on and make changes that works to improve our town, job prospects whilst saving the world.”