Climate change is back in the headlines, having broken through the current barrage of Brexit-related news, thanks to striking school children. While many of the asks of the pupils taking part in the global Youth Strike 4 Climate protests are aimed at national government, there’s a strong urban story to tell in the fight to save our planet. UK cities emitted 163,552 million tonnes of CO2 in 2016. This may sound like a huge amount, but despite the images of smokestacks and rush hour gridlock, cities are greener than you might think.
Cities account for 46 per cent of the total CO2 emitted by the country. When you consider that they are home to 54 per cent of the UK’s population and 59 per cent of jobs, our urban areas are emitting less than their fair share.
Three cities emitted 17 per cent of the UK’s CO2: London, Manchester and Birmingham, with the capital alone accounting for 11 per cent of emissions. This again reflects their size. New figures presented in Cities Outlook 2019 show that on a per head basis, all three fall well below the national average.
Top five emitting cities in 2016
||Total CO2 emissions, 2016 (t)
||Share of UK CO2 emissions, 2016
Source: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) 2018, CO2 emissions per head, 2016 data
This is because, by densely packing people and businesses into a small space, cities are able to achieve a more efficient emission of CO2 than more rural areas, meaning that emissions per head are lower in cities (4.6 tonnes) than the rest of the UK (6.3 tonnes).
Interestingly though, the extent to which density helps reduce emissions per head depends on what exactly is emitting the CO2.
Emissions of CO2 per head for transport, industry and domestic in 2016
Source: Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) 2018, CO2 emissions per head, 2016 data.
There’s little difference between cities and the rest of the UK when it comes to domestic emissions per head – predominantly from gas and electricity consumption. These emissions from our homes don’t vary much by city either, ranging from 1.2 tonnes per head in Plymouth and 1.9 in Mansfield.
In contrast, city transport emits far fewer tonnes of CO2 per person than in rural areas. In 2016, city transport emitted 1.5 tonnes of CO2 for every city resident compared with a much higher 2.5 tonnes per person elsewhere. The popularity of commuting via public transport in cities seems to be related. Cities with fewer commuters driving a car to work tend to have lower levels of CO2 emitted per head. Unsurprisingly, the new towns of Milton Keynes, Telford and Basildon – less dense by design – have some of the highest road transport emissions per head of all cities.
Industrial emissions per head are also lower in cities than the rest of the UK: 1.7 tonnes of CO2 were emitted by business for every city resident, compared with 2.6 tonnes per person elsewhere. This makes sense given we’ve seen heavy industry and manufacturing move away from cities over the past few decades, replaced by service-focused firms.
It also explains why Middlesbrough and Swansea stand out. Both cities had unusually high levels of emissions per head in 2016 – 13 and 22 tonnes per person respectively. This is almost wholly due to CO2 emitted by industry and is due to their relatively strong manufacturing sectors. The scaling down and closure of steelworks in Port Talbot and Redcar contributed to the drop in emissions per head between 2015 and 2016 but came at the cost of thousands of jobs.
Despite their efficiency, cities still have much work to do to cut emissions further. City transport, for example, has seen very limited improvement in recent years and most cities have experienced a small increase in emissions per head from this source. Given that density enables efficiency, planning has a big role to play in the continued fight against climate change. Prioritising denser developments and linking them with better public transport and cleaner buses would be a good place for cities to start.