Climate change is a rural issue, by Cllr Steve Count

I was intrigued to discover that over 60 years ago the first ever low-emissions tractor was built. A working prototype was built by manufacturer Allis-Chalmers, but never made it to commercial sales.

Today, many farmers are looking to switch from red diesel to hydrogen power to save money and our planet. Reducing the impact of agriculture on pollution and global warming is just one example of how rural people play our part in tackling climate change.

It’s no surprise after the devastating floods of last winter. Extreme weather events have doubled in the last three decades as torrential rainfall left meteorological records and communities in tatters.

This is a historic moment – public opinion is shifting rapidly with a resurgence of appreciation for the natural environment where we’ve walked, cycled and exercised during lockdown.

A moment to rebuild our economy, and reshape our country to meet the ambition of ‘Net Zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 and to level up all parts of the country. A green recovery that works for the two thirds that live outside the most urban cities and towns.

As the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, I am keenly aware of the need to balance economic recovery against environmental catastrophe. We are low-lying and vulnerable to sea level rise, yet far from a rural backwater, Cambridgeshire has the highest number of entrepreneurs per capita nationally, many focussed on advanced cleantech.

From Cornwall to County Durham we have decided to take a stand. We’re frustrated that climate solutions and green recovery packages to date have largely missed the rural voice. The Government’s £100bn infrastructure fund needs to support the ambitions of rural areas and the opportunities our countryside and green infrastructure can provide.

It can be hard to meet our ambitions when urban transport services don’t receive funding to reach out to remote communities or because investing in broadband for isolated areas isn’t economically viable. These examples of typical rural disadvantage combined with a funding gap in rural areas twice that of our urban counterparts, diminishing our stretched resources further.

Learning from and working with others is central to the scale and pace of change we need. That’s why 21 rural councils have joined forces with UK100 to create and launch the Countryside Climate Network for ambitious local leaders who want to do more, find solutions and achieve Net Zero goals.

Our rural communities can do more than just plant trees, we know first-hand how climate change impacts our land, food crop productivity, rainfall runoff, abundance of wildlife and rhythm of nature. From the Silicon Fen to the Scottish Highlands, we must harness our collective ingenuity.

However, rural communities face unfair barriers in trying to decarbonise. It is harder to attract funding for projects which don’t fit traditional cost benefit analyses, which favour urban concentrations yet may have less overall carbon reduction impact.

Yet there are great examples of work being done around the UK by councils in the newly established Countryside Climate Network.

Cornwall Council is developing a comprehensive Climate Change Development Plan. With support from Highways England, they are creating the Saints Trail: 30km of cycle and walking tracks to tackle traffic congestion, improve healthy travel options and dispel the myth that cars are the only option for travel in rural areas.

County Durham’s Business Energy Efficiency Project provides advice, free energy audits and grants to rural businesses, to reduce energy bills and carbon dioxide emissions.

Canterbury District Council’s support for a ‘green hydrogen’ plant, will draw electricity from offshore wind farms to create hydrogen to power clean buses.

North Yorkshire has reduced its street lighting energy consumption by investing in LED technology, reducing 4,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and saving the taxpayer £1.4m a year.

And closer to home, the Cambridgeshire village of Swaffham Prior demonstrates how a whole community can shift from oil to a renewable energy source. Thanks to a partnership between the community, my council and the Government, a planned district heating solution incorporating both a ground and air source heating solution will save costs for householders and 47,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over 40 years.

Imagine the impact if this were replicated in every village in the UK or in the 1 million households that still use oil fired central heating?

For the nation to tackle climate change and achieve Net Zero, the countryside must be at the heart of the conversation about a green recovery – before it’s too late.

Cllr Steve Count, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and Chair of the Countryside Climate Network

An abridged version of this comment piece appeared on the Daily Telegraph website.

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