Climate activism and local politics in Manchester: a relationship working towards environmental justice

Manchester is one of the cities in the UK that is leading the fight against climate change.

The Labour-led council has introduced a wave of policies in recent years hoping to fend off the challenges presented by climate change.

In 2019, a climate emergency was declared and a five-year environmental plan was created in an attempt to give Mancunians greater confidence in the future. The council also announced plans to become completely carbon zero by 2038 at the latest, 12years ahead of the government’s target for the UK of 2050.

To the untrained eye these plans have serious potential, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a wave of discontent in planning, delivery and execution.

Although international climate activism can trace its roots back to the 1980s, for Manchester it’s a relatively new phenomenon.

The Manchester Green Party did not get a councillor elected for 13 years until 2021. In July 2022 the Greens are the official council opposition with three seats. Volunteer organisations are also beginning to get traction and have an impact on decision-making regarding climate change.

Groups such as Climate Emergency Manchester (CEM) and Manchester Friends of the Earth aim to use the political landscape within the city to strive towards environmental justice.

Both these organisations educate followers on how to use the democratic tools available to them to achieve environmental justice. This ranges from teaching citizens how to write to local councillors to submitting petitions to spark debate in full council.

In recent years, climate activism has been front page news across the UK, with groups such as Extinction Rebellion and its offspring Insulate Britain catching the eyes of the media through civil disobedience.

But when analysing their impact , it’s hard to find any positive outcomes. If anything, the response from the public and the media has been negative. People are more bothered about the disruption and annoyance caused than the green message.

This has tainted the good work many climate activists do in their communities and shines a negative light on their motivations for doing so.

This is the polar opposite of the tactics displayed by some climate activists in Manchester, who use local politics to work towards environmental justice. Through either electoral success or hard facts that the Council cannot ignore, we can see some success.

Activists are beginning to communicate with the council and influence decisions on the climate emergency, while elected members are starting to hold the Labour-led council to account.

In this article, I’ll look at the trailblazers who are leading this democratic form of climate activism in Manchester, how they are using local politics to achieve justice, and the impact its having on the city.  

Climate activism and Manchester: background

The city council took its first steps against climate change in 2009, announcing a plan for collective climate action called ‘Manchester: A Certain Future’ which oversaw climate change strategy from 2010 to 2020.

This saw a reduction in the council’s direct carbon emissions by 54.7%. But in the latter stages of the 2010s it became apparent that this wasn’t enough and the council declared a climate emergency in July 2019.

This led to a significant increase in environment-related policies, culminating in the Climate Change Action Plan 2020-25. The plan outlined a range of initiatives set out to tackle climate change in the city for the next five years.

These ranged from adapting Manchester’s buildings, infrastructure and natural environments, improving the health and wellbeing of residents and ensuring there is a climate resilient economy.

Manchester City Council, view from St Peter’s Square

On paper such ideas sound great, but what is the situation on the ground in Manchester? First, the council fell short of reducing its carbon emissions in 2018/19 and 2019/20.

As a result, a new Climate Change ‘Framework 2.0’ is being developed by the Climate Change Partnership, set to be released this year, which will include a more detailed implementation plan to help the city strive towards environmental justice.

Alongside this, there seems to be confusion relating to the climate emergency. There are a range of different agencies and organisations all trying to strive towards environmental justice in Manchester, but it is unclear if anyone knows how to achieve it.

For climate activists in the city, this is extremely frustrating and shows a recurrent theme of bureaucratic red tape concerning the climate emergency.

One topic that caught the eye of climate activists was Manchester Airport. The airport is consistently the third busiest airport in the country behind London’s Gatwick Airport and Stanstead Airport.

In May 2022 alone, Manchester had a total of 15,473 aircraft movements, a dramatic increase from 2,430 in May 2021 (figures impacted by the pandemic). With the pandemic now behind us, traffic movements from Manchester airport are only going to continue increasing (see graph below).

Manchester Airport traffic statistics, 2022. Statistics courtesy of Manchester Airport.

The council is the joint largest stakeholder of the airport (35.5%) alongside IFM Global Infrastructure Fund. Councillors expressed a need to reduce aviation emissions from the airport in the Climate Change Action Plan but the council is going ahead with a £1bn development of terminal 2.

The second phase of this development, set to begin in the second quarter of 2023, will see a new three-storey pier added which will allow 10 new departure gates and six airport nodes with fixed link bridges.

The growing tide of elected climate activists

Manchester Airport is a topic for debate that could last hours between climate activists, but it has had a significant impact on climate activism and the recent success of the Manchester Green Party in Woodhouse Park. In the last two local elections, Woodhouse Park has elected two Green Party Councillors to represent their ward and the environmental issues they face (Rob Nunney, 2021 and Astrid Johnson, 2022). Adding to this, the Manchester Green Party are now the official opposition of the council, thanks to Hulme Councillor Ekua Bayunu leaving Labour and joining the Greens.

Bayunu said that she felt “constantly at odds with the culture of the Labour Party” and that after joining the Manchester Green Party she “found a new home, a new hope, a group committed to working with local people”. Certainly, local people are at the heart of climate activists’ push for environmental justice. In Woodhouse Park, residents suffer the most in Manchester from air and noise pollution thanks to its location, and because the area is relatively poor and poverty-stricken, many don’t have the means or social standing to demand change from the council. According to Manchester City Council’s Intelligence Hub, Woodhouse Park is the fifth worst area in Manchester in terms of its Index of Multiple Deprivation with a score of 50.557.

Furthermore, the ward consistently is one of the worst areas for general health with residents suffering from a range of pollution-related diseases. At an Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee in February it was emphasised that the levels of air pollution in Woodhouse Park is massive. In 2020, when travel was significantly less because of the pandemic, the annual mean of nitrogen dioxide was still 15.65 µg/m³, exceeding the World Health Organisation’s guideline of 10 µg/m³ (Vinsights). This year with air travel booming, especially from Manchester, nitrogen dioxide levels would be grim reading for a Woodhouse Park resident.

The Greens are trying to use local politics to try and achieve some sort of justice for those disproportionately affected by the above statistics. In their 2022 manifesto titled ‘The Time Is Now’, the Manchester Green Party stated that elected officials would call for an end to investment in high carbon-emitting companies and projects, including the potential divestment of funds from Manchester Airport. This was a bold statement considering the airport is a large employer in Woodhouse Park with 44.14% of the ward being employed in the transport industry, but it speaks directly to the issues at play in the area and clearly worked in terms of electoral success (Manchester statistics intelligence hub).

Scott Robinson, co-chair of the Manchester Green Party stated that there is a strategy in place to increase the number of elected Greens in Manchester. Speaking to The Northern Quota, Scott said:

“Woodhouse Park was the beginning of that new strategy and we’ve secured two councillors now, and absolutely I believe that Manchester Greens could win in other wards across the city, we came second in twelve of the wards this year and we look forward to seeing where we can go.”

Wythenshawe Civic Centre, Woodhouse Park

Rob Nunney was the face of this new strategy for the Manchester Green Party, becoming the first elected Green in Manchester for thirteen years in 2021. Nunney is one of the trailblazers for climate activists in Manchester and has developed good relationships with his community and organisations such as Climate Emergency Manchester. A quick glance at his Twitter page emphasises all the good work he does (@NunneyRobert). The councillor now sits on the Environment and Climate Change Scrutiny Committee and hopes that his influence will lead to more positive action in response to the climate emergency.

I caught up with Councillor Nunney talking about his experiences in local politics, what more can be done in Manchester, and the future for the Manchester Green Party. Check out a clip from the interview below:

Volunteer climate activism

Now, there are climate activists such as those mentioned above who are directly involved in local politics in Manchester, but there are also groups who look from the outside in. Volunteer organisations make up a massive part of the climate activism community in Manchester and they all share similar motivations, to make sure the council is serving the future generations of the city to the best of their ability. Through critiquing scrutiny committees and council-driven ventures across the city, volunteer organisations use the local political framework to help steer Manchester towards climate justice.

One of the most influential and well-established organisations is Climate Emergency Manchester. Since 2019 they have become a staple part of climate activism in Manchester and have gathered a following online on platforms such as Twitter. Back in May I attended an open meeting with CEM and I caught up with core member Adam Peirce where we spoke about the background of the organisation and how they go about their work. Check out the audio package below for more information:

As Peirce mentioned, CEM had some early successes in Manchester influencing the Council to declare a climate emergency and establish a dedicated climate change scrutiny committee. But since then, how have the organisation been getting along? CEM are extremely outspoken on social media and on their website. On Twitter, they have gathered nearly three thousand followers (as of August 2022) and are particularly critical of council announcements and public relations campaigns that relate to climate change.

CEM added: “We have tried to cut through their (the Councils) spin to give a more honest picture. This is important to limit the ability of the powerful to get good PR from woefully insufficient action.

“For example, when the council released a feel-good video about Manchester’s record on climate change, at around the time of COP26, we re-recorded the audio with a more honest account of the lack of progress in the city. Our alternative, more honest video got more views on Twitter than the council’s original.”

But still, similar to activists all over the country, members of CEM have found it tough to communicate with those in power.

“Many institutions have a long history of not being open to criticism or accepting unsolicited advice. Manchester City Council is no different. Individuals who work in those institutions might be more open to self-criticism and advice from organisations such as Climate Emergency Manchester. It takes time to identify those individuals, build trust and have an ongoing dialogue rather than hurl abuse on social media, which is normally far easier.

“The current political framework (a leader model with an executive), as well as the dominance of the Labour Party, makes it harder because many conversations are within the margins of what is seen publicly, but not impossible.”

This issue is shared by other organisations in Manchester, such as Manchester Friends of the Earth. They take a more public approach to climate activism and are often seen around the city organising meetings, protesting decisions and cleaning up local parks and green spaces.

The Green Fish, Manchester Friends of the Earth’s office, Northern Quarter

They too use the local political framework to strive for climate justice, but have said how tough it has been to get through to those in power. Manchester FOE said:

“I think it often varies depending on the councillor, in many cases good relationships can be made to work together to get changes through the council process. Perhaps people could ask to speak to their councillors more about climate change issues to ensure that they know their constituents think this is an important issue they want them to take action on. If people don’t tell them, they won’t know!

“One thing Friends of the Earth has called for and has been used in other parts of the country is citizen assemblies. These could allow a forum for discussions between the council and citizens to take place more easily.”

A citizens’ assembly would streamline communication between activist and those in power, and would mean that the decision-makers could have consistent academic advice from climate change experts. When talking to Rob Nunney he highlighted an interest in something such as a citizens assembly, he said:

“It’s a bridge between the politicians and the electorate and the activists, this would be a mid-point and would allow activist who have specialist points of interest to advise politicians, it’s definitely worth looking into”.

One of the reasons for the lack of communication between those in power and climate activists is because of the number of people involved. Yes, climate activism is a popular topic in the UK, but how many people do you know who are actual climate activists? I’d guess not many, unless you are one yourself. Climate Emergency Manchester certainly is one of the organisations that are limited by their number of volunteers.

When I attended their open meeting in May 2022, there were only about ten people present. Obviously more people are involved with the organisation who couldn’t make that particular meeting, but it shows the struggles that activists do have to cope with. If an organisation such as CEM is influencing decisions with by Manchester City Council with such a small number of dedicated volunteers, imagine what they could do with a larger workforce. Decisions regarding climate change would no longer play second fiddle to say economics or housing. If more citizens got involved in the movement, community-wide change would be more likely.

CEM said: “Wherever you live, local authorities are likely ignored by the majority of residents. Yet these are the most accessible centres of power. We have to keep the pressure on all spheres of influence to step beyond their ‘business as usual’ comfort zones and actually confront the scale of the challenge posed by the climate emergency.

“CEM would love to talk to any residents of Manchester who want to get more involved but don’t know how. Anyone outside of Manchester we are happy to give a steer on how to better hold their local authorities accountable on climate action.”

The influence of these volunteer organisations can be seen as varied, to the naked and untrained eye it probably seems like not much is going on. But as we can see, decisions are being influenced by volunteer organisations. Groups such as the above that hold the powers to account are an important function of any democracy, let alone one of the fastest growing cities in the UK. Scott Robinson, co-chair of the Manchester Greens highlights the importance of organisations such as CEM:

“I think Climate Emergency Manchester are a really good organisation that’s helped really highlight and push, certainly Manchester Green Party further in terms of what we can do for the climate emergency. We’ve had criticism in the past from them that were not necessarily doing as much as we could, and I do take that on board.

“I think a lot of our focus has been on electoral success because we believe that one of the best ways of making changes is to be elected and to sit in council chambers in order to make those changes, or at least to attempt to or hold the administrations to account.”

The future of climate activism in Manchester

Climate activism in Manchester has a crucial part to play in the coming decade. Not only is the climate emergency in Manchester a pressing issue, action needs to be taken by those in power to rapidly reduce the effects of climate change worldwide. Manchester as a city is expanding at a rapid rate and is attracting more and more people, making things more complicated when trying to achieve environmental justice. Yes, the situation is tricky and almost seems like we are staring down the barrel of a gun, but an opportunity has presented itself for Manchester to spearhead the fight against climate change on behalf of local government authorities.

Climate activists whether they are elected or volunteers will be central to the future of this great city. There is a need now more than ever for efficient and fact-driven climate activism that ensures those in power are serving Mancunians to the best of their ability. As a country we are beginning to see the impact of climate change, with record temperatures and droughts becoming commonplace this summer. This has transcended the issue and made a lot of people realise that action is needed now. Activists in Manchester are beginning to have an influence in local politics with Climate Emergency Manchester, Manchester Friends of the Earth and the Manchester Green Party all increasing in popularity over the recent years. The Council need to take the issue by the scruff of the neck and work with activists to achieve environmental justice and this is something which I hope to see for the future of climate activism in Manchester.