English councils set to miss carbon emission targets

Despite their climate pledges, many local authorities do not even know how much carbon they produce

Many councils in England don’t know how much energy they use, a new survey reveals. The findings make it “inconceivable” that they will become carbon neutral within 30 years, as the government has mandated.

According to the survey, 43% of councils – 93 of the 214 local authorities that responded to a freedom of information request from electrical contractors’ trade body ECA – do not measure the energy they use in council-owned buildings or know how much carbon they produce.

ECA energy adviser Luke Osborne said the findings were “highly concerning”. Without immediate changes, “it is inconceivable that councils are going to become carbon neutral in less than 30 years”, he said.

Despite 78% of councils in the survey saying they are planning towards net zero operation by 2050, 47% say they do not have a strategy in place to reduce the carbon emissions from housing, offices and other buildings.

Of the 49 councils in the survey that stated they would be carbon neutral by 2030, 11 do not know their current carbon footprint.

Council buildings pump out large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). On average, a council HQ building emits 1,234 tonnes of CO2 a year, according to ECA. Overall, English council headquarters emit more than 250,000 tonnes of CO2 a year – the equivalent of 150,000 return flights from London to New York.

Many councils have older, energy inefficient buildings, said Osborne, but there are simple measures that could be implemented quickly, such as switching to LED lighting and monitoring occupancy levels. “There is a lot of rhetoric out there, but very few action plans,” he said.

There are 408 councils in England, of which 265 (65%) have declared a climate emergency, ranging from cities such as Nottingham, Bristol and Oxford to district councils such as Adur & Worthing, which says all its pool cars will be hybrid by this summer.

But experts say councils are still not doing enough, due to government cuts and the lack of national standards on climate action. “There are some brilliant plans, but they tend to be in the larger metropolitan areas, driven by local leaders and metro mayors,” said Jess Britton, a research fellow at Exeter University. “Declaring a climate emergency and having a realistic plan are two hugely different things.”

Britton’s research into local climate strategies includes a call for a new national framework on climate action, which she said would enable councils to bring local organisations together to tackle the crisis.

Environmental law firm ClientEarth said last September that dozens of councils were set to miss the government’s net-zero target for 2050 and warned of a collective failure by local authorities across England to plan adequately for climate change. Council climate pledges have to jostle with local development demands. Manchester city council’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2038, for example, has not only been criticised for being unambitious, but explicitly excludes Manchester Airport, which is part-owned by the council, and where a new £50m car park is being planned.

Last week the Local Government Association, which represents local authorities, held its first climate emergency conference for councils. Chaitanya Kumar, head of climate and energy at the Green Alliance thinktank, said government cuts have made it difficult for councils to tackle the climate crisis, despite growing pressure from citizens to act. “Very, very few authorities have the resources, financial, technical or otherwise, to make the changes they need,” he said. Councils are concerned about the imposition of any statutory duty to act over the climate crisis unless they are also given additional resources, he added.

This weekend, the first-ever UK citizens’ climate assembly took place, at which 110 people gathered to come up with a plan to tackle global heating and meet the government’s 2050 target. It remains to be seen how the national assembly will marry up with various local groups being convened in places such as Devon and Oxford, said Britton.

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