In June 2019, the UK passed a law setting an ambitious target: net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This, and measures such as the recently adopted Sixth Carbon Budget, is necessary to keep global warming well under 2°C and avoid irreversible damage to the planet.

As this is an international issue, much of the intervention needed will need to be led by national governments. And much of the intervention will be ‘place blind’ – changing the way we generate electricity, for example, will not have a particular place angle to it. But two sources of emissions – transport and domestic – vary across the country because of the way that the built environment affects our lifestyles. On these two sources of emissions, place will be an important factor in bringing them down.

This report looks at the role that different places will have to play to help the UK achieve its net zero goal. It looks at how far cities and large towns are from net zero, how it varies between places and the scale and effort required to get there. With a focus on transport and housing, two activities that need to be decarbonised, this research sets out what needs to change if urban areas are to lead the way in decarbonising the UK’s economy, without leaving people and places behind.

What is net zero?

Net zero does not mean zero emissions; in sectors like agriculture, cutting emissions down to zero will hardly be achievable. Instead it means reaching a balance between emissions going into, and being removed from, the atmosphere: any emissions that are produced are fully offset through ‘carbon sinks’, either natural (like trees) or artificial (such as carbon capture and storage technologies).

Carbon capture will only cover a small amount of the emissions produced in the UK.1 Given this, achieving net zero will require large cuts in overall emissions, even if this does not mean that emissions will be zero.

Box 1: Methodology

Definition of a city

Centre for Cities research focuses on the UK’s 63 largest towns and cities. Unless otherwise stated, here cities refer to Primary Urban Areas (PUAs), using a measure of the built-up area of a large city or town, rather than administrative boundaries like local authorities or combined authority geographies. Often used in Centre for Cities’ research to provide a consistent measure of the concentration of economic activity across the UK, PUAs’ geographies can help analyse the role cities play in the wider decarbonisation agenda as dense, contiguous built environment tends to have an impact on the carbon footprint of a given area and its residents.

Data used for this research

This paper uses a number of publicly available datasets. These include the UK local authority and regional carbon dioxide emission statistics, published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which are available for the years 2005 to 2018. These statistics show emissions allocated on an ‘end-user’ basis (they are distributed according to the point of energy consumption, or emission if not energy related). Emissions from the production of goods are assigned to where production takes place, so those generated from imports are not included.

Other sources include the National Travel Survey, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, Census 2011 data, as well as the EPC Domestic Register.

Although the decarbonisation agenda and UK’s net zero target cover all greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, this research focuses primarily on CO2. This is largely because it is the only component included in the local authority dataset. CO2 contributes the most to global warming, accounting for more than 80 per cent of all UK greenhouse gas emissions.


  • 1 In 2018, less than 2 per cent of the UK’s overall emissions were naturally removed from the atmosphere. Recent changes to the methodology in the Greenhouse Gas Inventory including higher estimates of peatland emissions show that the land-use and forestry sector is moving from a net sink to a net source of emissions.