Councils switching to electric waste vehicles show leadership

City buses

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his “build, build, build” speech this summer, he mentioned wanting to introduce 4,000 ‘carbon zero buses’, to address the climate crisis.

There are several London bus routes which run on non-fossil based fuel, as he well knows from his time as mayor of our capital city.

His recent speech didn’t extend the sentiment to refuse vehicles, however, which was a shame. Nearly a year ago, Westminster council struck a deal with Veolia, their waste recycling contractor, to introduce electric vehicles.

That was five months after the City of London Corporation vowed in April 2019 to become the first UK council to run a fully electric fleet.

These two councils manage the areas which run the UK’s centre of politics, plus the “square mile”, historically the centre of the nation’s commerce. Loosely, one might consider this to be politics and business coming together to be more environmentally friendly. It is a loose link. But the link leads on to the recognition that politicians and business are both beginning to think in an environmentally friendly way.

At the start of this year, reports emerged to suggest how environmentally beneficial it could be for councils to switch from diesel/petrol recycling trucks to electric. An estimated 290,000 tonnes of carbon emissions could be saved each year, if each council made the switch.

Does that sound a big figure? It was estimated that the UK emitted 364.1 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018. Therefore, reducing our carbon emissions while we recycle from the doorstep is only a tiny act of what society must do in order to halve our carbon emissions by 2030. (This is in the hope of halving them again each decade to 2050, in order to keep global temperature rises down to 2.5C, against pre-industrial levels.) However, these councils acting in this way shows intent and is a huge step in the right direction. They are playing their part and showing leadership.

It is interesting to note that oil companies are looking to the future with renewable energy. The big energy companies are coming around to the idea that more customers want fossil free energy. They know their businesses – based on fossil fuels – have limited life expectancy. Demand is being reduced. Their profits are down. Therefore they need to look at protecting their businesses by diversifying. Some buy renewable energy companies, or invest in them.

Some, however, are making direct inroads into renewable energy. This week, Shell announced it is looking to add solar panels to its offshore wind farms in the Netherhlands. They already have the wind power, but effectively they want to maximise the industrial nature of their wind farms. When the wind doesn’t blow, they still want to generate power – and they know that solar works best in bright sunshine, when the wind isn’t blowing.

It all seems logical. Wind and solar are now the cheapest forms of energy. They don’t tell us how much of their investments are in renewable projects, compared to fossil fuel ones, but they catch the renewable energy publicity wave.

In the same week, one of England’s last coal mines is set to close. This comes after a record two-month spell of the National Grid producing coal-less energy. Coal accounted for 2% of the grid’s energy last year.

Arguably, a combination of industry and political will, and consumer demand for renewable energies, has driven down demand for coal.

We are living through one of the hottest decades on record. Last week was unbearable for many, in the day and at night. Climate change seems to be giving us more floods in winter (not very much snow) and hotter summers. If we want to reach the doomsday scenarios of months of stifling heat, food shortages and mass refugee movements because of the planet being increasingly uninhabitable, as laid out in books such as The Future We Choose, the public, industry and politicians all have a role to play to avert such a crisis.

It is down to all of us to think how we can reduce our carbon emissions. The recycling circle offers us the perfect example of how the public and politicians must align. We – the public – must recycle fully and responsibly (but also strive to reduce our waste and carbon footprint wherever we can.

Committing, perhaps, to buying less in plastic). Meanwhile, those in charge of our public services – our politicians and officers – must take a lead on procurement decisions, to help us – society – maximise the drive to being carbon neutral. Another example is public bus contracts, which, when renewed, councnils could insist be run on using renewable energy fuelled vehicles.

Decisions even apparently within a council’s remit are not always easy to make. Sometimes planning law inhibits the desire to help the climate, like when Surrey County Council managed to reject new oil exploration in Dunsfold.

But now two London councils have led the way in exploring electric vehicles to collect our waste. This decision, on waste, was clearly within the council’s remit – their own hands. Therefore, any councils that don’t follow suit are behind the times and out of kilter with the national Government’s declaration of a climate emergency.