The race to zero carbon is well underway

With MPs highlighting the lack of government policies in place to deliver the net zero target by 2050, we look at what councils are doing

When in January 2016 four UK cities were awarded a share of £40 million to promote green vehicle technology, it would not have been unwise to assume that at the turn of the next decade the landscape of green transport would have well and truly become the norm on UK roads, everywhere from Cornwall to northern Scotland. However, while improvements in the take up of electric vehicles have been noted in the so-called ‘Go Ultra Low Cities’ - Nottingham, Bristol, Milton Keynes and London - the aim of improving air quality in urban areas did not take off as envisaged by the government. Patrick McLoughlin, the former Transport Secretary, was not right in saying that the neighbourhoods of the future would be near by 2020.

Instead we have seen climate change move further up the public agenda. This is despite a lack of action from Westminster where efforts have been continuously pushed aside as successive government's seek to deliver Brexit by any means by 31 October. Successive research in June and July by Greener UK, the Climate Coalition and Christian Aid revealed that 70 per cent of the British public want to see urgent political action to protect the natural environment, with the latter poll finding that most adults in the UK care more about climate change in the long-term than Brexit, saying it should be the number one priority of new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is fair to say that this has not happened, despite 61 per cent of the public claiming that the government has not done, and is not doing, enough to prioritise climate change. So what has the government done?

In one of her last policy moves as Prime Minister, Theresa May announced that the UK will eradicate its net contribution to climate change by 2050, amending the Climate Change Act 2008. The change in legislation will mean that the UK is on track to become the first G7 country to legislate for net zero emissions, with other major economies expected to follow suit. The government says that the UK will conduct a further assessment within five years to confirm that other countries are taking similarly ambitious action, multiplying the effect of the UK’s lead and ensuring that our industries do not face unfair competition. The Scottish Government had already announced plans to amend its Climate Change Bill before May’s announcement, committing to a legally binding target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest.

May's pledge followed a report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) which argued that current policies would have to be ramped up significantly for a ‘net-zero’ emissions target to be credible, given that most sectors of the economy will need to cut their emissions to zero by 2050. However, the committee said that the 2050 nearly zero target could be achieved at no added cost from previous estimates, refuting claims by then Chancellor Philip Hammond that the UK’s net zero emissions target will ‘cost more than £1tn’. While the move has been met by general positivity, some say the phase-out is too late to protect the climate, and others fear that the task is impossible.

It is also important to note that the UK is already slipping away from its mid-term carbon targets of cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, making the amended target very difficult. And while central government plans are welcome, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport is among those calling on the government to better support local authorities work on climate change. The group is campaigning for net zero targets to be applied to all sectors of the economy and for all new homes and commercial buildings to be carbon zero by 2025. The Royal Town Planning Institute and Country Planning Association echo the need for local support, lamenting the lack of practical advice and support for local councils when it comes to planning.

One thing that can be said for councils is that climate change is not something that is being ignored, neither in terms of future plans or ongoing action. So far, more than half of councils in the UK have committed to cutting carbon emissions, many of whom have set 2030 as the date to reduce carbon emissions to zero. The largest authority to vote to declare a climate emergency is the London Assembly, who have called on the Mayor to declare a climate emergency and for him to put together a plan with specific actions needed for London to be carbon neutral by 2030. This has been accepted by Sadiq Khan, but with no additional commitments so far.

Manchester: realistic or unambitious?
Earlier this month the Greater Manchester Combined Authority became the latest authority in the country to declare a climate emergency. Having launched a five-year environmental plan in March, the authority is stressing that urgent action is required to put the region on the path to carbon neutrality by 2038 - a target that is causing some controversy with residents and businesses in the region.

The ambition to be zero carbon by 2038 is 12 years ahead of Whitehall's target, which should be applauded, but given the ambitions and actions of other councils across England, Scotland and Wales, 2038 seems surprisingly conservative. For an authority which aims to be at the forefront of change and progression, well marshalled under the stewardship of former labour leader contender Andy Burnham, 2038 as a target is considerably behind the date of 2030 which is fast becoming the norm. Leading the UK in tackling the homelessness crisis and shouldering responsibility for showing how devolved powers can boost the economy, the target is undeniably cautious, a decision which risks eventually looking unprogressive, especially since campaigners in Manchester petitioned Manchester City Council to declare a 2030 target and a climate emergency - only one of which appears to have been listened to.

Burnham has had plenty of opportunity to set the standard, but has instead, to date at least, prioritised his focus elsewhere, setting a housing target of 50,000 new, affordable homes in January, alongside bringing forward mayoral transport plans for the city. This is despite a report last year from IPPR North finding that air pollution is reducing life expectancy in the region by an average six months and, over the next century, estimating that 1.6 million life years will be lost unless action is taken.

Manchester City Council also contentiously excluded the Manchester Airport from local climate targets despite the fact that the airport is majority owned by the councils of Greater Manchester, which are currently planning to spend £50 million on a new airport car park able to accommodate approximately 7,500 cars.

Understanding your moral responsibilities
The only way in which to fairly criticise the target in Manchester is to draw comparisons with other councils and combined authorities, which, given that more than 100 councils in England have now declared a climate emergency, it is easy to do. The West Midlands Combined Authority, with similar powers to the GMCA, has also recently set targets to reduce carbon emissions in the Midlands region. Towards the end of July, Andy Street, Mayor of the authority, welcomed plans to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions by 2022, originally by a minimum of 36 per cent, and then a 69 per cent by 2027, as the 'next important step' in driving rapid action from local businesses, local government and citizens. Street, not trying to hide his attempts to lower expectations, was right in saying that the challenge in the Midlands may prove to be more difficult than in Manchester or Liverpool because of his region's industrial history. However, having set a target in 2010 to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, Street labelled the task ahead as a 'moral responsibility', saying businesses in the Midlands, including Jaguar Land Rover, would spearhead action by capitalising on the expertise already present in developing clean energy and electric vehicle technology.

Within the Midlands region, local and city councils have also been vocal about seeking change. Most noticeably, Birmingham City Council has outlined aspirations to be carbon neutral by 2030, following through on commitments made in January this year to go beyond its legal duties to tackle air pollution. The Clean Air Strategy, as part of its draft stage, was intended to be owned by the city of Birmingham, rather than Birmingham City Council, and precedes the city's Clean Air Zone, due to be implemented by January 2020. Alongside Leeds City Council, which has also set a carbon neutral target of 2030, Birmingham has blamed delays by the government in delivering digital systems, necessary for the zone to work, as the reason behind the introduction in the cities. The Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have since confirmed that a vehicle checking tool will not be ready until December, at the earliest, just weeks before the zones are to come into effect.

The two other combined authorities to have declared a climate emergency, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and West of England Combined Authority, have not set a formal date, although the declaration by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority follows a joint commitment with the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (the LEP) to become the UK’s first zero carbon city region, and declarations of climate emergencies by all councils within West Yorkshire. All three of West of England Combined Authority’s constituent councils – Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire – have also declared a climate emergency. Up to £10 million was recently made available to help reduce the impact of Bath & North East Somerset Council's Clean Air Zone on businesses and residents, having agreed a class C charging clean air zone in March.

In Liverpool change is also afoot. The council has just been awarded an additional £652,000 by the government to complete its clean air plan, in addition to the £1 million it has already received. Liverpool City Council, which is a major partner in the £4 million URBAN GreenUP project, says that the funding will pay for transport and air quality monitoring, as well as accelerate the progress of the document, which must be finalised by the end of October. Aside from legal matters and paperwork, Liverpool has declared a climate emergency and appointed the city's first Climate Change Champion to its cabinet. Laura Robertson-Collins, who will oversee the leaders of all four political parties in the region to pursue a zero carbon future, passed the motion for the council to cut its carbon output to zero by 2030 as her first move in the job. Liverpool City Council is currently on target to cut its carbon emissions by 42 per cent by the end of next year.

Going green
Another council making great strides in changing its green policies is Cornwall Council. The authority, which is run by an Independent-Liberal Democrat coalition, has recently published a new Clean Air for Cornwall Strategy 2019-2024 which includes plans to speed up the switch to ultra-emission vehicles, provide more electric car charging points and replace the council's diesel vehicle fleet. This follows a climate emergency being declared by the council earlier this year and proposals to plant carbon-absorbing woodlands across the Duchy, power all new homes in Cornwall with alternative energy sources under a planning shake-up and make energy efficiency improvements to existing council-owned homes.

A Forest for Cornwall, to be planted over the next 10 years, is also among the council’s first proposals. Councillors have now agreed to prioritise £1.7 million to be spent on the first phase of the Forest for Cornwall and retrofit pilot with the money coming from a £16 million fund already allocated for low carbon investments. Cornwall Council aims to be zero carbon by 2030.

Greening cities seems to be a popular feature of environmental planning. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently celebrated London being awarded National Park City status, becoming the first capital city in the world to hold the accolade. This enhances the efforts of many boroughs in the capital, with the London Boroughs of Brent, Croydon, Ealing, Harrow, Hammersmith & Fulham, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Merton, Newham, Redbridge, Richmond-upon-Thames, Southwark, Sutton and Wandsworth all declaring to be aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets has made a pledge to achieve the same status by 2025, the only borough to declare with a date before 2030. Having delayed a decision until July, Enfield Council’s cabinet declared a state of climate emergency and committed to making the authority carbon neutral by 2030 or sooner. To become net carbon neutral by 2030, Enfield Council estimates it will need to reduce or offset 30,000 tonnes of carbon a year.

Outside of London, Southampton City Council has begun work transforming the newly constructed Millbrook Roundabout into a greener, cleaner environment with a new Living Wall made of green planting being erected. Believed to be the first of its kind on the UK's major road network, research has found that placing vegetation within urban areas has a significant effect on air quality. This mirrors the work undertaken by Khan, via the Community Green Space Scheme, which is seeing schools in London building green pollution barriers between school playgrounds and classrooms and the busy roads running past them. Southampton City Council is facing mounting pressure to declare a climate emergency, with nearby Portsmouth City Council setting a zero carbon date of 2030 and Hampshire County Council a longer date of 2050, aligning to central government targets. Despite differences in scale of task and size of authority, the timeframe set for 2050 seems poorly judged when compared to Winchester City Council, who has set a target 15 years earlier.

The road to 2025
Which brings us to the authorities planning to exceed expectations, setting ambitious targets before 2030. These include the aforementioned London Borough of Tower Hamlets and Winchester City Council, as well as Teignbridge District Council in South Devon, Cheshire East Council, Warwick District Council and Highlands Council in Scotland, all of whom have deemed 2025 as the date by which carbon neutrality can be achieved. Winchester City Council has the added caveat of specifying council operations to be carbon neutral by 2024, and for the wider district to be carbon neutral by 2030. Elsewhere, Leicester City Council has pledged between 2025-2030 and Nottingham City Council to be carbon neutral by 2028.

Nottingham City Council remains the local authority to keep an eye on. It has already met its Energy Strategy target early, achieving a 26 per cent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions against 2005 by 2020, and remains on track to meet its 2020 target of 20 per cent of energy generation from low carbon sources, due to a combination of a reduction in the city’s energy demand and its renewable energy projects programme. Neighbouring Derby City Council will set a date by the end of 2019, expected to match or be slightly behind Nottingham’s pledge.

Other cities across England are making collaborative efforts to tackle the climate change crisis. In the north east, for example, The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has declared a climate emergency, becoming the first NHS trust in the UK to do so. The declaration, made by the trust's board in June 2019, demonstrates a clear and positive commitment to take action on climate change by aiming to become carbon neutral by 2040. It follows in the footsteps of city partners Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University who have recently made similar commitments. Newcastle City Council has pledged that the Newcastle upon Tyne region will be carbon neutral by 2030, taking into account both production and consumption emissions; while the university has committed to further substantial progress in the de-carbonisation of its activities with the aim of achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2040.

Contentious calls
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Hampshire County Council are by no means the only authorities currently showing a lack of ambition or to have come under fire from local campaign groups. Kent County Council held a debate between a 2030 target and a 2050 target, with Conservative councillors opposing Green councillors and Extinction Rebellion protesters to amend the carbon neutrality commitment to the later date. In Herefordshire, the council outlined aspirations for carbon neutrality by 2030 but continues to press ahead with plans for a controversial new bypass road. Like Kent, Durham County Council ignored attempts to lower the target date for zero carbon to 2030, while Devon County Council voted to set a target of 2050, rather than 2030, to shouts of shame by local campaigners and councillors.

Shropshire County Council relied upon a flurry of protestors and a last minute amendment by Liberal Democrat councillors to set a target of 2030, having initially suggested a target of 2040. The council's progress will be reviewed annually and it maintains that 2030 is only achievable if the government is to be more ambitious in its plans for carbon reduction targets.

The London Boroughs of Camden, Hounslow and Waltham Forest are yet to declare a net zero date, despite declaring climate emergencies, while Horsham District Council in West Sussex has passed a climate emergency motion, but failed to declare a climate emergency.

Ian Courts, who alongside Andy Street spearheaded the West Midlands Combined Authority’s declaration of a climate emergency, has come under fire as his council, Solihull, has yet to support one in his town, despite growing pressure from the local Green Party and Friends of the Earth campaigners.

Lancashire, which has been the victim of both floods and fires in recent years, has also been blasted for its lack of action. County councillors in the region declined to declare a climate emergency in March this year, after disagreeing over how best to make a local impact on global warming. Lancashire County Council also rejected committing the county to tougher targets for reducing carbon emissions than have been adopted nationally.

Meanwhile some smaller councils have made vague pledges of becoming carbon neutral eventually or 'as soon as possible', with Gwynedd County Council, Powys County Council and Tywyn Town Council the most notable to pursue this line of thinking. The larger Welsh councils, including Swansea, Cardiff and Monmouthshire, have all set targets of 2030 while the Welsh Government has also committed to achieving a carbon neutral public sector by 2030.

Machynlleth Town Council is believed to have been the first town council in Wales to declare a climate emergency last December after being urged to do so by concerned residents. The town houses the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is working to determine what zero carbon would look like in the UK, as set out in their three Zero Carbon Britain reports, looking at a technical scenario that shows how we can reach zero emissions; an exploration of the cultural and social barriers to change; and a summary of zero- and low-carbon models from around the world.

Top local authorities for carbon neutrality targets

- London Borough of Tower Hamlets (carbon neutral by 2025)

- Teignbridge District Council (carbon neutral by 2025)

- Highland Council (carbon neutral by 2025)

- Warwick District Council (carbon neutral by 2025)

- Cheshire East Council (carbon neutral by 2025)

- Winchester City Council (aims for council operations to be carbon neutral by 2024 and for the wider district to be carbon neutral by 2030)

- Leicester City Council (carbon neutral by 2025-2030)

- Nottingham City Council (carbon neutral by 2028)

All information within this article is correct as of 20 August 2019.

Updated information on climate emergency declarations and councils setting carbon neutral dates can be found on the website.

Written by Michael Lyons, Editor of Government Business magazine.

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