Climate change activist and York campaigner Geoff Beacon says the city is rowing back from its high profile green commitments
Meanwhile up north, York council is planning to abandon its climate pledge.
In 2019, under pressure from the younger generation, City of York Council declared a climate emergency and Professor Gouldson and others from Leeds University were asked to show how York should proceed.
The Gouldson study gave York’s fair share of the remaining budget for greenhouse gas emissions to keep the world safe. They suggested 50 tonnes CO2e per citizen, based on a scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
This found that if world-wide emissions were kept below 50 tonnes per person, the targets of the Paris Agreement would just be achieved – and very dangerous climate change could be avoided.
The Gouldson study also assessed the current greenhouse gas emissions in York. However, the study did not count emissions from “things that are produced elsewhere and then imported into York … similarly food production and flying are not included.”
After ignoring these extra emissions, the study’s estimate gave York’s yearly emissions as 4.23 tonnes CO2e for the average citizen. This would exhaust the 50-tonne remaining carbon budget in less than 12 years.
Looking back at York’s declaration of a climate emergency, it is clear that these extra emissions should not be ignored. The declaration specified that all emissions caused by York’s citizens should be counted to give their full carbon footprint, as Tim Franklin, chair of York’s Green Party noted later.
Greenhouse gases still rising
One way of measuring carbon footprints is to look at a citizen’s consumption then work out what emissions were caused in creating the goods and services consumed. These emissions are known as consumption emissions, which are specifically mentioned In York’s climate emergency declaration.
Measurement of the consumption emissions is complex, but the Leeds School of Earth and Environment compiles them for the UK. The latest figures for the whole of the UK puts yearly carbon emissions at 10.5 tonnes CO2e per person.
In 2015, the Stockholm Environment Institute estimated York’s yearly carbon emissions as 14.3 tonnes per citizen.
The partial emissions reported in the Gouldson study are less than half of the emissions required to be counted by York’s climate declaration. This means York will exhaust its “fair remaining carbon budget” in less than six years.
This is even worse for several reasons:
- The 50-tonne target counts from 2020, so the fair remaining budget is now nearer 40 tonnes CO2e.
- Despite a temporary fall in world greenhouse gas emissions due to the Covid pandemic, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are still rising. Economic activity is recovering in York as the pandemic eases.
- The York Local Plan will lock in large greenhouse gas emissions.
So, what are York council doing? They are gearing up to abandon their pledge of a climate emergency.
At the December 2020 meeting of York council’s climate change policy and scrutiny committee, Shaun Gibbons, York’s head of carbon reduction presented a report. He introduced the Gouldson study and referred to its “science based” approach.
The Gouldson study does use two measures that could be regarded as scientific: the ‘fair remaining carbon budget’ based on work of the IPCC and yearly emissions based on estimates compiled by the Department of Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
However, since the estimates from BEIS do not include imported goods, food production and flying, it is hardly a “science based” approach to use these in assessing compliance to the York climate pledge.
The extra emissions from imports, flying and so on are “scope 3” emissions . Shaun Gibbons said in his presentation:
“Carbon Neutral York in my view should be based upon scope 1 and scope 2 emissions but with a commitment that will also look to minimise our scope 3 emissions and that will constantly re-evaluate this approach.”
That meant ignoring over half the emissions that York’s declaration of a climate emergency required.
At this meeting, the climate change scrutiny committee also “supported the objective for the council to become net zero carbon by 2030, noting that it would allow the council to provide a leading role in the city.”
However, it was noted that “this would likely not include services that were not wholly delivered by the Council” and “would likely not [include] housing provided by housing associations or waste collection services provided by organisations such as YorWaste”.
Is the plan now to abandon York’s declaration of a climate emergency and replace it with something much weaker?
Will any new plan just count the emissions caused by York Council’s activities – and then only measure part of those emissions? York’s original declaration included a requirement for the full, consumption based, emissions to reach zero by 2030 for the whole of York.
Things that must change
One advantage of measuring carbon emissions by considering people’s consumption is that it gives guidance on how lives must change if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.
A useful view of consumption emissions is to divide them into four categories:
- Government and other
Allocating the “fair remaining carbon” equally gives 12.5 tonnes CO2e for each category. This makes it easy to see the scale of York’s problem.
Various studies show the carbon footprints of diets containing meat (especially beef) cause about three tonnes CO2e per person per year. Vegan diets have been found to be nearer one tonne. Average diets exhaust the remaining food budget in five years.
We must change our diets and eat much less meat and imported food, especially if it is flown here.
Carbon emissions from building are about a quarter of the emissions due to consumption in the UK. A study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2015 put yearly emissions at 2.99 tonnes CO2e per person for York citizens but 1.53 at the Derwenthorpe development.
The York figure exhausts the ‘buildings budget’ in under five years. Derwenthorpe emission are less – a new development designed to be sustainable – but at the cost of the large emissions due to its construction, which amounts to 10s of tonnes of CO2e per resident.
We must change the way we construct buildings and live in them.
The majority of carbon emissions for transport come from the use of the private car.
Basic cars powered by fossil fuels cause carbon emissions of two tonnes CO2e a year – expensive cars can be several times that.
However, fuel in the tank causes just part of the emissions. According to Mike Berners-Lee, the emissions from making a car varies from 4 tonnes CO2e from making a Citroen C1 to 25 tonnes for making a Range Rover Sport.
A new Citroen C1 clocking up 10,000 kilometres a year gets through a personal remaining carbon budget for transport in less than six years. A new Range Rover Sport has easily exhausted this budget before it is on the road.
Electric cars are no answer. Just making a Renault Zoe almost exhausts the transport budget – and it will be decades before the electricity that drives it will be clean and green.
This means that we must plan for fewer cars.
What will York council do?
Drastic cuts in emissions from food, building and cars are necessary to fulfil York’s climate pledge – but they pose problems that are political dynamite. How can York citizens be told to give up…
- Eating beef and other climate destroying foods?
- Use much less energy in heating and building their homes?
- Give up private cars?
Will City of York Council ignore their climate pledge because the politics are too hard? If this is their plan, they should be honest and rescind the motion on a climate emergency.
Let’s ask them to be honest. If York can’t keep its climate promise, will the council admit it?