City limits: the quest for carbon neutrality

Margaret Taylor

With governments around the world committed to achieving carbon-neutral status by 2050, Global Insight assesses the role our cities have to play in getting them there.

Given that the UK government was the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, it should come as no surprise that several British cities have entered the race to achieve zero-carbon status. Nottingham threw down the gauntlet at the beginning of this year, announcing in January that it was on track to become the UK’s first carbon-neutral municipality by 2028 but, when the UK Parliament made its national declaration in May, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Leeds quickly joined the race.

They are far from alone. Numerous cities around the globe are making the commitment to go carbon-neutral. From Boulder, Minneapolis and New York in the US, to Adelaide and Melbourne in Australia, by way of Copenhagen, London and Helsinki in Europe. They all want to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in as short a timeframe as possible. How they plan to get there – and when – varies from place to place.

Getting there

According to the Committee on Climate Change, a non-departmental public body that provides advice to both the UK government and the UK’s devolved administrations, ‘evidence that carbon-dioxide emissions are the cause of global warming is very robust’. While actions such as planting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, can help offset those emissions, it is widely accepted that when it comes to municipalities, carbon neutrality will only be achieved if emissions are drastically cut first.

That will involve rethinking everything from how homes are heated to how waste is disposed of, though Chris Pritchett, a partner at Bristol law firm Foot Anstey, believes addressing pollution from vehicles is likely to have the biggest effect.

‘In cities, you have to focus carefully on where emissions are coming from and the prediction is that it will be transport,’ he says. ‘You then have to look at what you can do to bring that down – it might be a clean air zone or taking a lot of cars off the road somehow – but you have to have an integrated policy.’

Yet, as Sam Hunter Jones, a climate lawyer at European environmental law organisation ClientEarth, points out, cities may well end up falling short of their own zero-carbon targets because the policies they are using to get them there are too weak. ‘Climate policies are very vague and they aren’t enforced because they say things like “this should be done where possible”,’ he says.

In a bid to combat this, ClientEarth has taken matters into its own hands, writing to 100 local authorities across England warning them that if they do not introduce robust measures for tackling the climate crisis as part of their updated local plans, they could find themselves at the receiving end of legal action for breaching planning and environmental laws.

‘Too often climate change is perceived to be just a national or international issue and therefore solely the responsibility of central government,’ Hunter Jones says. ‘Yet, so many of the daily decisions around new and existing infrastructure – such as new buildings, roads and utilities – are made at the local level. All of these decisions will lock in an area’s future emissions and its resilience to climate change. Each and every planning decision taken today must be in line with long-term climate goals, because what and how we build today will determine our climate impact and resilience in the crucial decades to come.’

It is perhaps understandable that ClientEarth would want to underline local authorities’ legal obligation to honour their commitments given that good intentions have been abandoned in the past. Jonathan Cocker, a partner at Baker McKenzie in Toronto and the Sustainability Initiatives Officer on the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee, notes that over a decade ago he advised a number of municipalities that wanted to become carbon-neutral, but that their policies were quickly shelved when their economic priorities changed.

‘They made substantial commitments to renewable energy, they revisited their waste processes and priorities, they looked at energy efficiency and they considered infrastructure and public transportation,’ he recalls. ‘When the economic crash came, a lot of those things were seen as inconsistent with the economy and there was a period when not much was happening.’

Everyone on board

Despite local governments signalling their commitment to addressing climate change, cities are being held back in their net-zero ambitions because their policymaking is yet to win public support. For that to change, legislatures have to not just tell people they are doing the wrong thing and have to stop, but incentivise them to do the right thing, too.

‘While people might like the idea or ethical concept of being zero-carbon because their city will be cleaner and the air quality will improve, when it comes to individual behaviours people operate in a manner that suits them,’ says Alan Cook, a partner in the Glasgow office of international law firm Pinsent Masons. ‘Consumer behaviour has to be incentivised, but there has to be a mix of carrot and stick. Making it easier to have electric vehicles by lowering the price, making charging easier and getting rid of the fear of not being able to go for long distances is the carrot. The stick is banning more-polluting vehicles.’

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, agrees, noting that to secure buy-in from the public, policymakers should take steps to involve them in their decision making. ‘People broadly are supportive of needing to do something about climate change – they are broadly accepting that it’s happening, and that’s a big development,’ he says. ‘Everyone now connects heatwaves with climate change and they also accept they need to do something about it, but I don’t think there’s been a process of consulting the populace about what to do about it. There’s a useful exercise in asking them what they would accept to achieve net-zero. People don’t like having single-issue policies thrust on them under the guise of climate change.’

Climate policies are very vague and don’t get enforced because they say things like “this should be done where possible“

Sam Hunter Jones
Climate lawyer, ClientEarth

Much of the local opposition to the changes required to address the climate crisis focuses on the idea that it would be futile for one small city to do its bit while super-powers, such as China and the US, remain committed to burning fossil fuels. Why, people ask, should they be stopped from driving to work if China is going to continue building coal-fired power stations and President Trump is going to continue denying there is a problem to address?

They have a point, of course. As Stark at the Committee on Climate Change says: ‘This is a global issue – it’s genuinely a worldwide concern. It doesn’t matter if CO2 is emitted in China or Timbuktu, once it’s in the atmosphere, it has the property of warming the planet.’

However, while Pritchett concedes that the best way to address climate change is for all cities and all countries to aim for carbon neutrality at the same time, he stresses that the fact others aren’t taking action ‘is not a reason not to do it’.

‘You can engage with that argument and say the US is making strides despite Trump and coal, or that China will catch up because it is electrifying its transport at a rate Europe can only dream of,’ he says. ‘But it’s also important to ignore the people pointing to them and just get on with it.’

Anne Ramberg, Secretary General of the Swedish Bar Association and a member of the IBA Climate Change Justice and Human Rights Task Force, goes further, noting that no matter where they are located, or how small they are, cities have a vital role to play in the fight against the climate emergency. ‘There are many dreams and many obstacles [to achieving climate justice],’ she says. ‘The combination of weak or non-existent national legislation, inefficiency in the adherence to regulation and lack of supervision, as well as the absence of remedies for holding companies responsible, can be devastating to large groups of people, particularly in the developing world.

The race to zero-carbon: the contenders

When Nottingham unveiled its bid to become the UK’s first zero-carbon city, the local authority’s energy and environment lead Sally Longford said that although the municipality had already made good progress ‘it is incumbent on us to do more’.

Having invested in, among other things, a fleet of electric, biogas and retrofitted buses, as well as cycling facilities and bike hubs, the city reduced its carbon emissions by a quarter by 2018, two years earlier than originally planned. The logical next step, Longford said, was to become entirely carbon neutral by 2028.

‘We need a shift in the way we produce and use energy, more sustainable management of waste and ways to travel and to look at things like shortening supply chains by buying goods and services locally,’ she said.

Like Nottingham, rival Scottish cities Glasgow and Edinburgh have both also set their sights on winning the zero-carbon race, although their timeframes are less ambitious than Nottingham’s: Glasgow is aiming to hit the target ‘well before 2045’ while Edinburgh plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

Given that much of that will be dependent on cutting emissions, they are likely to have their work cut out for them: Glasgow’s Hope Street is regularly named the most polluted thoroughfare in Scotland by Friends of the Earth, while Edinburgh was this year named the UK’s ‘Capital of Congestion’ in a league table put together by satellite navigation manufacturer TomTom.

Though both have committed to cutting pollution through measures such as low-emission zones and bus gates, more drastic attempts to cut the number of cars entering their centres have met with resistance from the populace.

Indeed, while Nottingham has been able to both reduce congestion and invest in its low-emission public transport network through the introduction of a workplace parking levy, Scottish government plans to enable local authorities to do the same were roundly criticised by opposition parties, business groups and citizens when they were announced in May. Glasgow City Council received a similar reaction when it moved to abolish free Sunday parking in June.

Given the challenges these cities still have to overcome, it is likely they will be left behind in the carbon-neutral race by less-encumbered localities such as Copenhagen, which as long ago as 2013 pledged to achieve zero-carbon status by 2025.

The Danish capital has made much progress since, with a switch to wind energy by its own utility company HOFOR contributing to a 40 per cent reduction in climate-changing gases between 2005 and 2017, while further investment in its longstanding district heating system has also helped.

Crucially, though, while the city’s streets have long been dominated by cyclists, Copenhagen has committed to making cars a thing of the past, with a new multi-billion kroner metro line that will put 85 per cent of residents within 600 metres of a metro or train station due to open this autumn.

‘Unfortunately, too many state-actors and multi-national corporations are evading the prohibitions. Because of their power and influence, some companies are in reality beyond the reach of the law. These companies have the potential to significantly impact the lives and wellbeing of people and the environment. The ways these companies operate often prevents the accountability of their decision-makers. The ability for existing and possible human rights institutions or mechanisms to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of globalisation is limited. It will be up to civil society and the business community, in co-operation with states that realise the challenge, to counteract the effects of states’ and businesses’ exploitation of land and people.’

This presents something of a conundrum. While some sections of the business community may not be motivated to mitigate the effects of climate change, other sections are, but they are reliant on the backing of states – both those that realise the challenge and those that don’t – in order to make an impact. Indeed, while there is no shortage of businesses prepared to rise to the challenge of coming up with cleaner technologies, Cocker points out the fact that many of those are in start-up mode, meaning their products may never get off the ground. ‘Funding is critical for most of the companies that call me with their basement science start-ups,’ he says. ‘They need that first round of funding before they can go to investors, but these kinds of funds have ebbed and flowed based on the government of the day.’

Despite substantial commitments to renewable energy, when the economic crash came a lot of those things were seen as inconsistent with the economy

Jonathan Cocker
Partner, Baker McKenzie

On top of that, for Laura Zizzo, founder and Chief Executive of Canadian climate solutions consultancy Mantle, it’s more than just money that states and local authorities will have to provide. Co-operation between public and private sectors is vital if net-zero is to be achieved. ‘I’m interested in how the public sector can leverage private sector innovation,’ she says. ‘There are some interesting examples of banks having incubators for clean tech and it’s not just command and control but an innovative collaboration culture.’

For that collaboration to work, though, Pritchett believes municipalities will have to be on the front foot not just in terms of policy-making and funding, but also when it comes to co-ordination and oversight. ‘Local authorities have to be emboldened and financed to [take control of] this,’ he says. ‘There’s no shortage of people saying they’ll build a solar farm or create transport for a city but there has to be a certain centralisation of the supervision.’

Build a wall

That may seem like a lot for city governments to have to deal with to achieve their net-zero goals, but it doesn’t end there. Back in 2012, the World Bank warned that if no action was taken to address the climate emergency, the world would be on track to be four degrees warmer by the end of this century. Regardless of whether cities can achieve their net-zero targets or not, Zizzo is clear that as a global increase of at least 1.5 degrees is expected to be felt, cities must also take action now to prepare themselves for the expected flooding, heatwaves and storms that increase will bring.

‘We know we’re committed to a certain amount of global warming so we have to move to aggressive adoption [of carbon-reduction strategies] but cities also have to think about how to brace for the changes that are coming,’ she says. ‘Municipalities will have to put as much if not more attention into that because even if they do achieve the success they want with net-zero, we are all still committed to climate change. That’s the reality of where we’re at right now.’

It is a reality that some municipalities are taking seriously, with New York last year announcing a $1bn investment in a five-mile long seawall and promenade designed to hold back the worst of any future storms. Other US localities are expected to follow suit, with a report from the Center for Climate Integrity, published in June, predicting that 14 coastal states would have to spend at least $10bn each on seawall construction in the next 20 years, with Florida facing the highest costs at $76bn by 2040. Given that Hurricane Sandy, which claimed more than 140 lives, is thought to have caused $19bn worth of damage when it hit New York in 2012, it is anticipated that it would be money well spent.

Weak national legislation, inefficiency in adherence to regulation and absence of remedies for holding companies responsible can be devastating to large groups of people, particularly in the developing world

Anne Ramberg
Secretary General, Swedish Bar Association; Member, IBA Climate Change Justice and Human Rights Task Force

Such projects should be tied in with any zero-carbon ambitions, with any city, state, country or region that is willing to put money into defending itself against the effects of climate change having a responsibility to reduce its contribution to that change. ‘There are lots of reasons why we should be getting this right now, [but one reason is that] it’s much more efficient and cost effective if you make decisions now that will be future-proofed,’ he explains. ‘A lot of this is about proper long-term planning – if you’re planning for a four-degree future, it means you have to have real plans in place for things like flood risk. Cities have to plan for that anyway so they should also be making local communities as zero-carbon as possible, otherwise they’ll have to do it in the future.’

Historical divide

Cost efficiencies aside, the number one reason for doing this right now, as was made clear by the IBA Climate Change Justice and Human Rights Task Force Report, is that the impact on future generations, whether at home or abroad, will be dire if we do not. In its report Achieving Justice and Human Rights in an Era of Climate Disruption, the Task Force noted that climate change injustice is ‘felt across generations because the cumulative, environmental effects of human behaviour can last centuries, even millennia, into the future.

‘The changing global temperatures we are witnessing today are in part due to consumption and production choices that others made many years ago,’ it says. ‘Future institutions and individuals will similarly have to grapple with the consequences of present-day choices. Action is needed today to prevent climate change from intensifying, to mitigate emissions from existing sources of climate change, and to adapt to its unavoidable effects.’

Put like that, it is no wonder that the race to zero-carbon is on.

Margaret Taylor is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at