Guest post: 12 best ways to get cars out of cities – ranked by new research

By Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor of Sustainability Science, Lund University

Question: what do the following statistics have in common?

A stretch of the Champs-Élysées around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is due to be pedestrianised by 2030. Shutterstock

Answer: the vehicles on our streets, primarily the not-so-humble passenger car.

Despite the (slow) migration to electric-powered cars, consumer trends are making driving even more wasteful and unequal. A recent analysis found the emissions saved from electric cars have been more than cancelled out by the increase in gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Around the world, SUVs alone emit more carbon pollution than Canada or Germany, and are causing a bigger increase in climate pollution than heavy industry.

While cars are sometimes necessary for people’s mobility and social inclusion needs – not least those with disabilities – car-centric cities particularly disadvantage the already-marginalised. In the UK, women, young and older people, those from minority communities and disabled people are concentrated in the lowest-income households, of which 40% do not have a car. In contrast, nearly 90% of the highest-income households own at least one car.

So the driving habits of a minority impose high costs on society, and this is especially true in cities. Copenhagen, for example, has calculated that whereas each kilometre cycled benefits society to the tune of €0.64 (53 pence), each kilometre driven incurs a net loss of -€0.71 (-59p), when impacts on individual wellbeing (physical and mental health, accidents, traffic) and the environment (climate, air and noise pollution) are accounted for. So each kilometre travelled where a car is replaced by a bicycle generates €1.35 (£1.12) of social benefits – of which only a few cents would be saved by switching from a fossil-fuelled to an electric-powered car, according to this analysis.

Reducing car use in cities

Half a century ago, the Danish capital was dominated by cars. But following grassroots campaigns to change policies and streets, including replacing car parking with safe, separated bike lanes, Copenhagen has increased its biking share of all trips from 10% in 1970 to 35% today. In 2016, for the first time, more bicycles than cars made journeys around the city over the course of that year.

View of central Copenhagen, Denmark
Bicycles rule the centre of Copenhagen following campaigns to replace parking with safe bike lanes. Shutterstock

But while many other car-limiting initiatives have been attempted around the world, city officials, planners and citizens still do not have a clear, evidence-based way to reduce car use in cities. Our latest research, carried out with Paula Kuss at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies and published in Case Studies on Transport Policy, seeks to address this by quantifying the effectiveness of different initiatives to reduce urban car use.

Our study ranks the 12 most effective measures that European cities have introduced in recent decades, based on real-world data on innovations ranging from the “carrot” of bike and walk-to-work schemes to the “stick” of removing free parking. The ranking reflects cities’ successes not only in terms of measurable reductions in car use, but in achieving improved quality of life and sustainable mobility for their residents.

In all, we have screened nearly 800 peer-reviewed reports and case studies from throughout Europe, published since 2010, seeking those that quantified where and how cities had successfully reduced car use. The most effective measures, according to our review, are introducing a congestion charge, which reduces urban car levels by anywhere from 12% to 33%, and creating car-free streets and separated bike lanes, which has been found to lower car use in city centres by up to 20%. Our full ranking of the top 12 car-reducing measures is summarised in this table: https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/NDMp4/12/

The inequality of car use

Cars are inherently inefficient and inequitable in their use of land and resources. On average, they spend 96% of their time parked, taking up valuable urban space that could be put to more beneficial uses such as housing and public parks. In Berlin, car users on average take up 3.5 times more public space than non-car users, primarily through on-street parking.

And it is overwhelmingly richer people who drive the most: in Europe, the top 1% by income drive nearly four times more than the median driver, accounting for some 21% of their personal climate footprint. For these highest emitters, climate pollution from driving is second only to flying (which, on average, generates twice as many emissions).

Prioritising cars as a means of transport also favours suburban sprawl. City suburbs typically possess larger homes that generate higher levels of consumption and energy use. North American suburban households consistently have higher carbon footprints than urban ones: one study in Toronto found suburban footprints were twice as high.

It’s also clear that road traffic levels swell to fill the size of the roads built – yet traffic planning routinely ignores the fact that this “induced demand” exaggerates the benefits and underestimates the costs of building more roads.

Electric vehicles are necessary, but they’re not a panacea. Since cars tend to be on the road for a long time, the migration to electric vehicles is very slow. Some studies anticipate relatively small emissions reductions over the coming decade as a result of electric vehicle uptake. And even if there’s nothing damaging released from an electric car’s exhaust pipe, the wear of car brakes and tyres still creates toxic dust and microplastic pollution. However a car is powered, can it ever be an efficient use of resources and space to spend up to 95% of that energy moving the weight of the vehicle itself, rather than its passengers and goods?

COVID-19: a missed opportunity?

Our study assesses urban mobility innovations and experiments introduced before the pandemic was declared. In response to COVID-19, travel habits (to begin with, at least) changed dramatically. But following large reductions in driving during the spring of 2020, road use and the associated levels of climate pollution have since rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, in Sweden, while public transport use declined by around 42% during the first year of the pandemic, car travel declined by only 7% in the same period, leading to an overall increase in the proportion of car use.

Commuter traffic in Stockholm
Commuter traffic in Stockholm in November 2021. Sweden has seen an overall increase in its proportion of car use during the pandemic. Shutterstock

While entrenched habits such as car commuting are hard to shift, times of disruption can offer an effective moment to change mobility behaviour – in part because people forced to try a new habit may discover it has unexpected advantages. For such behaviour to stick, however, also requires changes in the physical infrastructure of cities. Unfortunately, while European cities that added pop-up bike lanes during the pandemic increased cycling rates by a stunning 11-48%, we are now seeing a return to car-centric cities, with extra car lanes and parking spaces once again displacing cycle lanes and space for pedestrians.

Overall, the opportunities to align pandemic recovery measures with climate targets have largely been squandered. Less than 20% of government spending on pandemic measures globally were likely to also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The extent to which workers resume driving to their offices is another key issue determining future car use in cities. Thoughtful travel policies to reduce unnecessary travel, and opportunities for faraway participants to fully participate in meetings and conferences digitally, could slash emissions by up to 94% – and save time to boot. Those who work remotely three or more days per week travel less overall than their peers. But long car commutes can quickly wipe out such emissions savings, so living close to work is still the best option.

No silver bullet solution

The research is clear: to improve health outcomes, meet climate targets and create more liveable cities, reducing car use should be an urgent priority. Yet many governments in the US and Europe continue to heavily subsidise driving through a combination of incentives such as subsidies for fossil fuel production, tax allowances for commuting by car, and incentives for company cars that promote driving over other means of transport. Essentially, such measures pay polluters while imposing the social costs on wider society.

City leaders have a wider range of policy instruments at their disposal than some might realise – from economic instruments such as charges and subsidies, to behavioural ones like providing feedback comparing individuals’ travel decisions with their peers’. Our study found that more than 75% of the urban innovations that have successfully reduced car use were led by a local city government – and in particular, those that have proved most effective, such as congestion charges, parking and traffic controls, and limited traffic zones.

But an important insight from our study is that narrow policies don’t seem to be as effective – there is no “silver bullet” solution. The most successful cities typically combine a few different policy instruments, including both carrots that encourage more sustainable travel choices, and sticks that charge for, or restrict, driving and parking.

So here are the 12 best ways to reduce city car use:

1. Congestion charges

The most effective measure identified by our research entails drivers paying to enter the city centre, with the revenues generated going towards alternative means of sustainable transport. London, an early pioneer of this strategy, has reduced city centre traffic by a whopping 33% since the charge’s introduction by the city’s first elected mayor, Ken Livingstone, in February 2003. The fixed-charge fee (with exemptions for certain groups and vehicles) has been raised over time, from an initial £5 per day up to £15 since June 2020. Importantly, 80% of the revenues raised are used for public transport investments.

Other European cities have followed suit, adopting similar schemes after referenda in Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg – with the Swedish cities varying their pricing by day and time. But despite congestion charges clearly leading to a significant and sustained reduction of car use and traffic volume, they cannot by themselves entirely eliminate the problem of congestion, which persists while the incentives and infrastructure favouring car use remain.

2. Parking and traffic controls

In a number of European cities, regulations to remove parking spaces and alter traffic routes – in many cases, replacing the space formerly dedicated to cars with car-free streets, bike lanes and walkways – has proved highly successful. For example, Oslo’s replacement of parking spaces with walkable car-free streets and bike lanes was found to have reduced car usage in the centre of the Norwegian capital by up to 19%.

3. Limited traffic zones

Rome, traditionally one of Europe’s most congested cities, has shifted the balance towards greater use of public transport by restricting car entry to its centre at certain times of day to residents only, plus those who pay an annual fee. This policy has reduced car traffic in the Italian capital by 20% during the restricted hours, and 10% even during unrestricted hours when all cars can visit the centre. The violation fines are used to finance Rome’s public transport system.

4. Mobility services for commuters

The most effective carrot-only measure identified by our review is a campaign to provide mobility services for commuters in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Local government and private companies collaborated to provide free public transport passes to employees, combined with a private shuttle bus to connect transit stops with workplaces. This programme, promoted through a marketing and communication plan, was found to have achieved a 37% reduction in the share of commuters travelling into the city centre by car.

5. Workplace parking charges

Another effective means of reducing the number of car commuters is to introduce workplace parking charges. For example, a large medical centre in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam achieved a 20-25% reduction in employee car commutes through a scheme that charged employees to park outside their offices, while also offering them the chance to “cash out” their parking spaces and use public transport instead. This scheme was found to be around three times more effective than a more extensive programme in the UK city of Nottingham, which applied a workplace parking charge to all major city employers possessing more than ten parking spaces. The revenue raised went towards supporting the Midlands city’s public transport network, including expansion of a tram line.

Norwich city centre, Norfolk.
Norwich reduced car commuters by nearly 20% with its workplace travel plan, including swapping car for bike parking. Shutterstock

6. Workplace travel planning

Programmes providing company-wide travel strategies and advice to encourage employees to end their car commutes have been widely used in cities across Europe. A major study, published in 2010, assessing 20 cities across the UK found an average of 18% of commuters switched from car to another mode after a full range of measures were combined – including company shuttle buses, discounts for public transport and improved bike infrastructure – as well as reduced parking provision. In a different programme, Norwich achieved near-identical rates by adopting a comprehensive plan but without the discounts for public transport. These carrot-and-stick efforts appear to have been more effective than Brighton & Hove’s carrot-only approach of providing plans and infrastructure such as workplace bicycle storage, which saw a 3% shift away from car use.

7. University travel planning

Similarly, university travel programmes often combine the carrot of promotion of public transport and active travel with the stick of parking management on campus. The most successful example highlighted in our review was achieved by the University of Bristol, which reduced car use among its staff by 27% while providing them with improved bike infrastructure and public transport discounts. A more ambitious programme in the Spanish city of San Sebastián targeted both staff and students at Universidad del País Vasco. Although it achieved a more modest reduction rate of 7.2%, the absolute reduction in car use was still substantial from the entire population of university commuters.

8. Mobility services for universities

The Sicilian city of Catania used a carrot-only approach for its students. By offering them a free public transport pass and providing shuttle connections to campus, the city was found to have achieved a 24% decrease in the share of students commuting by car.

Catania, Sicily
Catania achieved a 24% decrease in the share of students commuting by car. Shutterstock

9. Car sharing

Perhaps surprisingly, car sharing turns out to be a somewhat divisive measure for reducing car use in cities, according to our analysis. Such schemes, where members can easily rent a nearby vehicle for a few hours, have showed promising results in Bremen, Germany and Genoa, Italy, with each shared car replacing between 12 and 15 private vehicles, on average. Their approach included increasing the number of shared cars and stations, and integrating them with residential areas, public transport and bike infrastructure.

Both schemes also provided car sharing for employees and ran awareness-raising campaigns. But other studies point to a risk that car sharing may, in fact, induce previously car-free residents to increase their car use. We therefore recommend more research into how to design car sharing programmes that truly reduce overall car use.

10. School travel planning

Two English cities, Brighton & Hove and Norwich, have used (and assessed) the carrot-only measure of school travel planning: providing trip advice, planning and even events for students and parents to encourage them to walk, bike or carpool to school, along with providing improved bike infrastructure in their cities. Norwich found it was able to reduce the share of car use for school trips by 10.9%, using this approach, while Brighton’s analysis found the impact was about half that much.

11. Personalised travel plans

Many cities have experimented with personal travel analysis and plans for individual residents, including Marseille in France, Munich in Germany, Maastricht in the Netherlands and San Sebastián in Spain. These programmes – providing journey advice and planning for city residents to walk, bike or use (sometimes discounted) public transport – are found to have achieved modest-sounding reductions of 6-12%. However, since they encompass all residents of a city, as opposed to smaller populations of, say, commuters to school or the workplace, these approaches can still play a valuable role in reducing car use overall. (San Sebastián introduced both university and personalised travel planning in parallel, which is likely to have reduced car use further than either in isolation.)

12. Apps for sustainable mobility

Mobile phone technology has a growing role in strategies to reduce car use. The Italian city of Bologna, for example, developed an app for people and teams of employees from participating companies to track their mobility. Participants competed to gain points for walking, biking and using public transport, with local businesses offering these app users rewards for achieving points goals.

There is great interest in such gamification of sustainable mobility – and at first glance, the data from the Bologna app looks striking. An impressive 73% of users reported using their car “less”. But unlike other studies which measure the number or distance of car trips, it is not possible to calculate the reduction of distance travelled or emissions from this data, so the overall effectiveness is unclear. For example, skipping one short car trip and skipping a year of long driving commutes both count as driving “less”.

While mobility data from apps can offer valuable tools for improved transport planning and services, good design is needed to ensure that “smart” solutions actually decrease emissions and promote sustainable transport, because the current evidence is mixed. For instance, a 2021 study found that after a ride-hailing service such as Uber or Lyft enters an urban market, vehicle ownership increases – particularly in already car-dependent cities – and public transport use declines in high-income areas.

Cities need to re-imagine themselves

Reducing car dependency is not just a nice idea. It is essential for the survival of people and places around the world, which the recent IPCC report on climate impacts makes clear hinges on how close to 1.5°C the world can limit global warming. Avoiding irreversible harm and meeting their Paris Agreement obligations requires industrialised nations such as the UK and Sweden to reduce their emissions by 10-12% per year – about 1% every month.

Yet until the pandemic struck, transport emissions in Europe were steadily increasing. Indeed, current policies are predicted to deliver transport emissions in 2040 that are almost unchanged from 50 years earlier.

Local buses in the Swedish city of Lund, home of the Centre for Sustainability Studies. Shutterstock

To meet the planet’s health and climate goals, city governments need to make the necessary transitions for sustainable mobility by, first, avoiding the need for mobility (see Paris’s 15-minute city); second, shifting remaining mobility needs from cars to active and public transport wherever possible; and finally, improving the cars that remain to be zero-emission.

This transition must be fast and fair: city leaders and civil society need to engage citizens to build political legitimacy and momentum for these changes. Without widespread public buy-in to reduce cars, the EU’s commitment to deliver 100 climate-neutral cities in Europe by 2030 looks a remote prospect.

Radically reducing cars will make cities better places to live – and it can be done. A 2020 study demonstrated that we can provide decent living standards for the planet’s projected 10 billion people using 60% less energy than today. But to do so, wealthy countries need to build three times as much public transport infrastructure as they currently possess, and each person should limit their annual travel to between 5,000 kilometres (in dense cities) and 15,000 kilometres (in more remote areas).

The positive impact from reducing cars in cities will be felt by all who live and work in them, in the form of more convivial spaces. As a journalist visiting the newly car-free Belgian city of Ghent put it in 2020:

The air tastes better … People turn their streets into sitting rooms and extra gardens.

Cities need to re-imagine themselves by remaking what is possible to match what is necessary. At the heart of this, guided by better evidence of what works, they must do more to break free from cars.


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Further reading: more on air pollution from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Digitalisation and decarbonisation: a 2-D approach to building back greener

Across the world, two disruptive and powerful trends are taking hold: digitalisation and decarbonisation. At times, it seems as if these two forces are acting against each other, with digital technologies accelerating economic growth, but also consuming huge quantities of energy and emitting high amounts of CO2.

But it’s becoming clear that rather than competing, digitalisation and decarbonisation can work together in ways that achieve sustainable economic growth without destroying our home planet.

The net zero imperative

We’re now familiar with the evidence that global warming will do irreparable damage to the world unless we can reduce the greenhouse gases that cause it. Getting to net zero means achieving the right balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

The challenge is one not just for national governments. Businesses are facing growing regulatory, reputational and market-driven pressures to transform their business models and embrace the shift to a low-carbon, sustainable future. It’s here that digitalisation can support us on the path to net zero.

The digital possibilities

In 2020, a Green Alliance study reported that  digital technologies could have significant positive environmental impacts, including: accelerating the deployment of clean technologies and helping businesses to stop wasting energy and resources.

But the report also found that many UK businesses are still not making use of digital solutions: only 42% of UK businesses have purchased cloud computing services, compared to 65% in Finland and 56% in Denmark. The authors highlighted a number of factors explaining slower digital adoption, including lack of digital skills, concerns about cybersecurity and privacy, and underinvestment in infrastructure.

AI as an ally in the battle against climate change

Another report, published last year by PwC and Microsoft explored the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in tackling the climate crisis. Focusing on agriculture, water, energy and transport, the report revealed numerous ways in which AI can have positive environmental and economic impacts.

  • In agriculture, AI can better monitor environmental conditions and crop yields;
  • AI-driven monitoring tools can track domestic and industrial water use, and enable suppliers to pre-empt water demand, reducing both wastage and shortages;
  • AI’s deep learning, predictive capabilities can help manage the supply and demand of renewable energy.

The report stressed that AI cannot act on its own, but will rely on multiple complementary technologies working together, including robotics, the internet of things, electric vehicles and more.

While the challenges of putting AI to work in tackling the climate crisis are great, the prizes of doing so are equally significant. The PwC/Microsoft report estimated that across the four sectors studied AI could:

  • contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030;
  • reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by up to 4.0% in 2030, (an amount equivalent to the 2030 annual emissions of Australia, Canada and Japan combined);
  • create up to 38.2 million net new jobs across the global economy.

Put simply, AI can enable our future systems to be more productive for the economy and for nature.

The downsides of digitalisation

As we’ve previously reported, the infrastructure that supports the digital world comes with significant energy costs and environmental impacts. From internet browsing, video and audio streaming, as well as manufacturing, shipping, and powering digital devices, digital has its own substantial carbon footprint.

The PwC/Microsoft report acknowledges that there will be trade-offs and challenges:

“For example, AI with its focus on efficiency through automation might potentially lead to ‘over exploitation’ of natural resources if not carefully guided and managed. AI, especially deep learning and quantum deep learning, could also lead to increased demand for energy, which could be counter-productive for sustainability goals, unless that energy is renewable and that electricity generation is developed hand-in-hand with application deployment.”

In addition, there is a need to ensure that all parts of the world are able to capture the benefits of digital technologies – not just the more advanced economies.

Final thoughts

Decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime. Digital technologies have enormous potential not only to achieve decarbonisation, but to improve economic performance.

As both the Green Alliance and PwC/Microsoft reports have underlined, this can be achieved by taking a joined-up approach to digitalisation and green growth. This means thinking beyond the technology to consider issues such as investing in education and training to develop the skills needed to support the growth of clean industries and digitalisation, addressing privacy concerns and supporting businesses in their drive to shrink their carbon footprints.

As we emerge from a pandemic which has inflicted great damage to economies, but which has also demonstrated the possibilities of changing longstanding habits, digitalisation is presenting us with opportunities to ensure that building back greener is more than just a slogan.


Further reading: more on climate change and technology from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

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Introducing the Scottish Planning and Environmental Law (SPEL) Journal

The Knowledge Exchange publishes a bi-monthly journal covering all aspects of planning and environmental law in Scotland. SPEL Journal (Scottish Planning & Environmental Law) launched over 30 years ago and is one of the leading information sources on land use planning and environmental legislation across the country.

Recent issues of SPEL have included responses and comment on the draft NPF4 as well as articles focusing on other key policy and practice areas:

  • The failure of planning guidance to reflect the impact of noise on wildlife
  • National development planning for Scotland’s rural areas
  • The draft NPF4, energy and the move to net zero
  • The Scottish Government’s onshore wind policy review
  • Access to justice in environmental litigation, and non-compliance in Scotland’s civil justice system with the Aarhus Convention

Key court cases examined recently in the journal include:

  • R v The Environment Agency – Pollution harmful to a vulnerable child
  • Greenpeace Ltd v The Advocate General – Unsuccessful challenge to oil field exploitation consent
  • North Lowther Energy Initative Ltd v The Scottish Ministers – Wind farm approval challenge
  • Cosmopolitan Hotels Ltd v Renfrewshire Council – Procedures for challenges to the validity of proposed local development plans
  • Trees for Life v NatureScot – Quashing of beaver culling licences

A journal of record

SPEL was launched in 1980 as ‘Scottish Planning Law & Practice’, to be a journal of record of Scottish planning. When it became apparent that the emerging field of environmental law was strongly linked to land use planning, the name of our journal changed to reflect this.

Written by a wide range of subject experts, SPEL Journal includes accessible commentary on topical subjects and current issues; details of new legislation and significant court cases; expert comment on key planning appeal decisions, government circulars and guidance; as well as notes about ombudsman cases and book reviews.

A widely read and valued resource

SPEL Journal is read by decision makers in Scottish planning authorities, planning law practices, planning consultancies, architects, surveyors, civil engineers, environmental managers and developers across Scotland. It is also valued by many practitioners outside of Scotland who need to keep abreast of developments.

An annual subscription to SPEL Journal is £170. For further details or a sample copy, please contact Heather Cameron on 03330111542 or email heather.cameron@Idoxgroup.com.

After Glasgow: the legacies of COP26 and the continuing challenge of climate change

It’s almost four months since the UN’s climate change conference took place in Glasgow. COP26 was headlined as a pivotal moment in the fight against global warming. But how much was achieved in Glasgow, and how much more action is needed if we’re to limit destructive levels of global temperature rises?

The legacies of COP26 were the focal point of a webinar last month, hosted by Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI).  Mairi Spowage, the recently appointed Director of the FAI, welcomed Chris Stark, CEO of the Climate Change Committee and Steve Williams, senior partner at Deloitte Scotland, to consider how the outcomes from COP26 might influence government policy and business practice.

COP26 report card: a mixed picture

Chris Stark began with an upbeat assessment of COP26, noting that while it didn’t deliver everything hoped for, the inclusion of voices from civil society, business and finance added weight to the urgency of tackling climate change. Chris expects those voices to be influential in pushing governments to keep their promises on tackling climate change. He also welcomed the sectoral agreements announced in Glasgow on reducing the use of coal, cutting methane emissions and protecting forests.

That said, Chris warned that the agreements in Glasgow will not be enough to prevent the Earth’s average temperature exceeding a rise of 1.5 degrees C – the tipping point where many climate impacts go from destructive to catastrophic:

“The overall outcomes are still heading in the wrong direction. We went into the Paris COP in 2015 facing 3.6 degrees of warming. If we add up all the current policies that we see globally, we will leave Glasgow facing something like 2.7 degrees of warming.”

All of which heightens the importance of delivering every one of the emissions reduction targets which governments and businesses have set for 2030. Chris also stressed that some countries need to raise their levels of ambition, notably Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, China and Russia.

Business: the journey to tackling climate change

Business has a vital role to play in tackling global warming, and Steve Williams outlined where the corporate sector currently finds itself. Most of Deloitte’s clients have targets and governance in place to reduce their carbon footprints, although not all have a credible road map to achieving decarbonisation.

Steve went on to highlight four areas that are being worked on.

Many companies are trying to understand the scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions targets, as well as setting science-based emissions targets, and investing in systems to obtain the right data to make sure they can stand behind the numbers that they publicise.

With regard to business operations, companies are attempting to truly understand their reliance on fossil fuels, switching to renewables, and exploring what other clean technologies are available. In addition, business is trying to have a clearer view of the vulnerabilities around supply chains that could result from climate change.

A third focal point for business is understanding investors’ expectations. Lenders are demanding more of companies in terms of decarbonisation, and they want to know about their roadmaps to sustainability.

The fourth area is one which Steve saw for himself during COP26. Businesses are starting to talk more about biodiversity and the health of our oceans. As a result, companies are moving towards ‘nature-friendly’ targets beyond existing decarbonisation goals.

Delivering on the promises: UK and Scottish Governments

As Chris Stark explained, the Climate Change Committee  (CCC) advises the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets and reports to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In line with CCC advice, last year the UK Government set in law the world’s most ambitious climate change target, aiming to cut emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government’s net zero emissions target date of 2045 is ahead of many other countries, and it has also set a very ambitious target of a 75% reduction in emissions by 2030, relative to 1990 levels.

Chris Stark stressed that both the UK and Scotland are presenting good examples to the rest of the world in addressing climate change. But he also highlighted the need to move even faster in the next decade. Having closed its major coal fired power stations, the major challenge for the UK is decarbonising buildings. Chris noted that energy efficiency strategies, covering measures like insulation and double glazing of buildings, are important, but…

“…the big gains in terms of emissions come from decarbonising heat supply to those buildings. This is a big cost, but in the long run it is worth it. My message here is we’ve got to get real about this. We have lots of ways in which we could do it, but until you start to knuckle down, particularly in making plans for the cities, where the big win is, it’s not going to happen.”

Business: decarbonising in a post-Covid world

Steve Williams suggested that the restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made it easier for some businesses to meet their decarbonisation targets. With commuting and business travel at significantly lower levels during the height of the pandemic, many companies’ emissions fell dramatically. As Steve acknowledged, the question now is how to make sure that these gains are not lost in the longer term. Examples of good practice include committing to less business travel in future, electrifying car fleets and appointing corporate climate champions.

Chris added that the CCC, having longstanding experience of advising government on policy,  is now increasingly providing advice to businesses on tackling climate change. Chris highlighted some of the issues business should be considering:

“Our primary advice to the business community is just start measuring. Think properly about the way in which you impact through emissions , and how exposed you are to the climate risks. And then think about the strategies you can use to push the national mission to net zero. As businesses do this, the policy environment should respond and go more quickly”

Final thoughts

Just four months on from COP26, the world looks very different today.  There are now concerns that economic pressures could cause governments to backslide on their climate change commitments, especially with a looming energy crisis threatening the cost of living.  However, there have also been more positive developments.

Earlier this month, leaders from nearly 200 countries agreed to draw up a legally binding treaty on reducing plastic waste. This will not only have positive impacts on ocean and marine life; it will also make a difference on climate change. A 2019 study reported that the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million tons of greenhouse gases – equivalent to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change has reiterated that global warming remains a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. The report couldn’t be clearer about what’s at stake:

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”

You can watch a recording of the FAI webinar here

Photo by William Gibson on Unsplash

Further reading: more on tackling climate change from The Knowledge Exchange blog

NPF4: a new prioritisation of the environment through planning?

The Scottish Government published the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) draft for consultation on the 10th November 2021. Titled ‘Scotland 2045’, the eagerly awaited document outlines Scotland’s strategic approach to planning and land use to 2045, coinciding with the government’s ambitious target of transitioning towards a net-zero society by the same year. Now combined with the Local Development Plans (LDPs), it is a critical publication that will inform future planning proposals for Scotland over the next quarter of a century.

A plan of four parts

NPF4 is an extensive planning framework and it is impossible to fully review the 130 page document in a short post. However, it is made up of four key parts:

  • A National Spatial Strategy which sets out the four fundamental overarching themes which future development will aim to reflect and achieve. This is a vision for the creation of sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places.
  • 18 National Developments of ‘national importance’ that are proposed to support the delivery of the spatial strategy across the country. These include developments such as a Central Scotland Green Network, Urban Mass/Rapid Transit Network and Island Hubs for Net-Zero
  • 35 National Planning Policies for development and land use to be applied in the preparation of development plans, local place plans and development briefs; and for the determination of planning consents.
  • Delivering the Spatial Strategy through key delivery mechanisms such as aligning resources to targeting investment and an infrastructure first approach.

What does NPF4 include on climate change?

The transition towards a net-zero society through sustainable development is a cornerstone of the draft NPF4. In fact, the wider issues of climate change, decarbonisation, biodiversity loss and nature-based solutions are firmly rooted throughout many of the strategy’s policies.

Policy 2 is dedicated to climate change. It lays out a new requirement for all development proposals to give significant weight to the Global Climate Emergency as planning authorities are to carefully consider every development’s future implications for the climate.

It states that all developments should be designed to minimise emissions in alignment with the national decarbonisation targets and that proposals that do generate significant emissions should not be supported, unless the applicant provides evidence that the level of emissions is the minimum that can be achieved.

Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, has highlighted the requirement of giving ‘significant weight’ to climate emissions as a crucial feature within the framework for facilitating future sustainable development.

There is an undoubted sense of prioritisation of the climate emergency within the draft NPF4, as well as recognition of the planning authorities’ role in reducing emissions that was not so evident in previous iterations.

However, the draft concept of ‘significant weight’ remains a loose term that could become open to uncertainty – especially with the wide variety of developments it will apply to in practice. Despite the draft NPF4 illustrating that evidence of minimum emissions is required in certain instances – such as carbon intensive proposals – it remains unclear what this translates to in more typical housing developments, for example.

A host of other policies are also relevant to climate. Policy 19 on green energy states that local development plans should “ensure that an area’s full potential for electricity and heat from renewable sources is achieved”, whilst all forms of renewable energy and low-carbon solutions should also be supported. This includes support for the extension and creation of new wind farms.

Another marked difference from previous iterations of the NPF is the inclusion of ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ as a viable approach to low-carbon urban living. A key principle of Policy 7 on local living, it is mentioned 18 times throughout NPF4 – making it one of the most prominently used phrases in the document.

Nature and biodiversity loss

As well as acknowledging the climate emergency, the draft NPF4 is clear in its identification of a ‘nature crisis’ in Scotland that is being aggravated by urbanisation:

“Our approach to planning and development will also play a critical role in supporting nature restoration and recovery. Global declines in biodiversity are mirrored here in Scotland with urbanisation recognised as a key pressure. We will need to invest in nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change whilst also addressing biodiversity loss, so we can safeguard the natural systems on which our economy, health and wellbeing depend.“

Policy 3 is dedicated to promoting nature recovery, and again there is a heightened focus on this issue now compared to previous strategies. It states that development proposals should “facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration“, whilst the potential adverse impacts of development should be minimised as a priority.

Likewise, major development proposals or those where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is needed should only be approved where it is concluded that the proposal “will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention”.

Further areas of importance with regard to nature preservation include the use of ‘nature-based solutions’, which is used in accordance with the spatial strategies, several of the national developments and planning policies.

In some instances, specific examples of nature-based solutions are provided – such as the impressive Central Scotland Green Network national development, which includes a nature-network approach to water management with sustainable drainage solutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, it could be argued that the draft lacks an abundance of smaller scale examples of nature-based solutions, in the practicalities of more routine planning developments.

Moreover, Policy 33 on soils aims to give peatlands greater protection and restoration. The draft states that development upon peatland and carbon rich soils should not be supported unless for meeting essential criteria, whilst “local development plans should actively protect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally valued soils“.

What’s next for NPF4?

The consultation period for NPF4 is well underway, with the Scottish Government inviting feedback and scrutiny on the document until 31st March 2022. The draft is subject to several parliamentary committees engaging with planning stakeholders and the general public.

Committees are encouraging demographic groups who do not typically engage with planning matters – such as young people and the elderly – to take part in NPF4, underlining the desire for more inclusive involvement in planning decision-making.

Following the declaration of a national climate emergency, the announcement of world-leading decarbonisation targets and the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow last November, NPF4 certainly provides a starting vision for how environmental targets will translate into action through planning.


Further reading: more on planning and the environment from The Knowledge Exchange blog:

Follow us on Twitter to find out what topic areas are interesting our research team

Geographical Information Systems: mapping our ever-changing world

Location data in today’s economy is as important as coal and iron were during the industrial revolution. Using location data – information about the location and movement of people collected from mobile and wearable devices – the essential relationships between geography and consumer experiences, products and services can be identified. This can open up many new business opportunities.

So it’s not surprising that geographical information systems (GIS) – the technology that helps visualise and interrogate location data is experiencing rapid growth. It’s estimated that the UK market for location information products and services is over £2,000 million, while the global market size for GIS is expected to reach $25.6 billion by 2030. Recognising this trend, Idox (the parent company of The Knowledge Exchange) recently acquired two GIS businesses: thinkWhere and exeGesIS Spatial Data Management Ltd.

The power of GIS

As the name suggests, geography is at the heart of GIS. From variations in our landscape to changes in our climate, covering areas of life as varied as crime, health and pollution, GIS can help visualise trends that affect all of us. GIS can also help us to adapt to our ever-changing world. For example, GIS maps that display which areas are prone to flooding can be invaluable when planning new housing developments.

Some of the factors driving the increasing application of GIS include its use in urban planning, disaster management, transport management and the development of smart cities. The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated the rapid growth of GIS. Governments around the world have adopted the technology to map the spread of the disease and evaluate measures to limit its advance.

GIS in action

Idox’s two new acquisitions have considerable experience of real-world GIS applications.

Working with land and property information firm Millar & Bryce, thinkWhere developed a customised version of its flagship groundMapper platform. The solution enabled Millar & Bryce to bundle all documentation pertinent to a project and publish it to a web viewer, reducing a one week process to 48 hours. Because they can make more informed decisions faster, Millar & Bryce have now made groundMapper the centerpiece of its new Site Assembly Solutions service, giving the company a distinctive selling point in a competitive market for land referencing.

thinkWhere has also applied its expertise to help Bucchleuch Estates easily capture, maintain and communicate their land and property assets and associated information such as documents, photos, drawings and reports. And when constructing a new bypass around the city of Aberdeen, Balfour Beatty was significantly helped by thinkWhere, which provided universal access to mapping and environmental data for all stakeholders — not just on the construction side, but also in legal firms, the government and transport authorities.

Similarly, exeGesIS has developed a strong reputation for its range of GIS focused software products, particularly in the field of environmental data.  Among its success stories, exeGesIS has built a web platform for the National Street Gazetteer, which provides essential information for local government, highway authorities and contractors on more than a million streets in England and Wales. The company has also developed a GIS to help local authorities in Scotland monitor litter and fly-tipping incidents, and worked with JNCC – which advises government on nature conservation – to create a new mapping system to display marine spatial data. In addition, exeGesIS  has worked with numerous local authorities, universities and charities to help them visualise and interrogate important information in interactive and imaginative ways.

Dynamic data for an ever-changing world

By uncovering patterns and relationships, GIS is providing organisations in almost every field of activity with the support to gain deeper insight into data, solve complex problems and make smarter decisions. Both thinkwhere and exeGesIS will continue helping to explain how our world works, and identifying ways to make it work better.

Image: thinkwhere


Further reading: more on digital technologies from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research team this week.

Guest post: Three reasons why climate change models are our best hope for understanding the future

Dan Moeller/Shutterstock

Mark Maslin, UCL

It’s a common argument among climate deniers: scientific models cannot predict the future, so why should we trust them to tell us how the climate will change?

This trope recently surfaced in an interview with Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson on Joe Rogan’s podcast. According to Peterson: “There is no such thing as climate… climate and everything are the same word.” Faced with the impossible task of including “everything” in their equations – and predicting what will happen weeks and months from now – the world’s scientists are incapable of modelling the climate accurately, in Peterson’s view.

As a scientist whose research involves modelling the climate on a global and regional scale, I can say with confidence that this interpretation is wrong. Here are just three reasons why.

Muddling weather and climate

Deniers often confuse the climate with weather when arguing that models are inherently inaccurate. Weather refers to the short-term conditions in the atmosphere at any given time. The climate, meanwhile, is the weather of a region averaged over several decades.

A computer-generated weather map showing pressure systems with lines and colours.
Forecasting the weather is quite different from modelling the climate. Andrey VP/Shutterstock

Weather predictions have got much more accurate over the last 40 years, but the chaotic nature of weather means they become unreliable beyond a week or so. Modelling climate change is much easier however, as you are dealing with long-term averages. For example, we know the weather will be warmer in summer and colder in winter.

Here’s a helpful comparison. It is impossible to predict at what age any particular person will die, but we can say with a high degree of confidence what the average life expectancy of a person will be in a particular country. And we can say with 100% confidence that they will die. Just as we can say with absolute certainty that putting greenhouses gases in the atmosphere warms the planet.

Strength in numbers

There are a huge range of climate models, from those attempting to understand specific mechanisms such as the behaviour of clouds, to general circulation models (GCM) that are used to predict the future climate of our planet.

There are over 20 major international research centres where teams of some of the smartest people in the world have built and run these GCMs which contain millions of lines of code representing the very latest understanding of the climate system. These models are continually tested against historic and palaeoclimate data (this refers to climate data from well before direct measurements, like the last ice age), as well as individual climate events such as large volcanic eruptions to make sure they reconstruct the climate, which they do extremely well.

No single model should ever be considered complete as they represent a very complex global climate system. But having so many different models constructed and calibrated independently means that scientists can be confident when the models agree.

Model predictions from the 1970s and 1980s compare stunningly well with the warming trend that actually occurred over the last four decades. And scientists have been continually testing and improving these models ever since, meaning their predictions are a very robust outcome of our science.

A line graph showing the range of model predictions and the actual temperature record since 1980.
How the earliest climate models compared with reality. Mark Maslin/Oxford University Press, Author provided

Errors about error

Given the climate is such a complicated system, you might reasonably ask how scientists address potential sources of error, especially when modelling the climate over hundreds of years.

The biggest source of uncertainty in all climate change models is how much greenhouse gases humanity will emit over the next 80 years. Scientists account for this by working with economists and social scientists to build scenarios of the future with different emissions trajectories.

We scientists are very aware that models are simplifications of a complex world. But by having so many different models, built by different groups of experts, we can be more certain of the results they produce. All the models show the same thing: put greenhouses gases into the atmosphere and the world warms up. We represent the potential errors by showing the range of warming produced by all the models for each scenario.

In its sixth assessment of the science of climate change, published in August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. How human activity will continue to affect the climate is a difficult question primarily because we do not know how the world will respond to this crisis. But we can count on models, which have a proven record of accuracy, to help us navigate what the future is likely to hold.

What is most worrying about this kind of climate change denial is that it still gets airtime. Shows like The Joe Rogan Experience can host guests peddling misinformation about climate change or the pandemic just to get a ratings boost. Spotify, it’s reported, paid US$100 million (£75 million) for Rogan’s podcast in 2020 and the platform has over 380 million users. Joe Rogan surely does not need a bigger audience or a bigger pay packet, so why not have credible experts on who actually want to help build a better, safer, and healthier world? This is what listeners want to hear about – real problems, real facts, real solutions.


Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange Blog on climate change

Digital carbon footprint: the environmental impact of digital transformation

In recent decades, digital technology has revolutionised nearly all aspects of our lives, transforming the ways in which we work, communicate, travel, listen, watch, and play. For governments and policy makers, particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worsening climate emergency, connectivity and technological innovation have quickly become central to sustainable development, and the digital economy has brought great opportunities in tackling the climate crisis and working towards net-zero.

Digital transformation has improved efficiency and productivity across all sectors, and helped to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in agriculture, transport, planning, building, waste management, and public services. However, our use of digital technology comes with its own energy cost, and as the world becomes increasingly reliant upon the internet and connected devices, it is important to acknowledge and manage the environmental impact.

The carbon footprint of ICT

It is estimated that there are currently around 4.66 billion active internet users globally, and as population and connectivity grows, this figure is increasing rapidly.

While it is easy to think of the internet and the digital world as an abstract and intangible space, the infrastructure that supports it is very much physical and comes with significant environmental and spatial demands. A huge amount of energy is required to power data centres and servers and to build and maintain transmission networks, and most of this energy currently comes from fossil fuels.

The manufacturing, shipping, and powering of digital devices also consumes a vast amount of energy, and the mining and extracting of the raw materials used to make them has a direct impact on land quality and biodiversity.

The use of digital communication channels and social media also has a significant carbon footprint. It is estimated that sending one email emits around 4g of CO2, and that in a typical year for a user of a business email account, around 135kg of CO2 is emitted as a result of incoming mail.

The average internet user is expected to spend around 2.5 hours per day on social media, which is thought to be the equivalent of driving around 0.9 miles in a car, and over the course of a year adds up to the equivalent of driving around 332 miles.

Internet browsing also accounts for a significant portion of digital carbon emissions. According to Website Carbon, loading the average webpage produces around 1.76g of CO2, meaning if a webpage were to get 100,000 views per month, this would emit more than 2000kg of CO2 in a year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, video and music streaming are among the biggest contributors to the digital carbon footprint, due to the vast amount of power needed to run the devices we stream on, as well as the energy needed to power the servers and networks that hold and transmit the content.  Streaming currently accounts for around 63% of global internet traffic, and video streaming alone is thought to generate approximately 300 million tonnes of CO2 every year (accounting for around 1% of total global carbon emissions).

What can we do?

ClimateCare and MyClimate have both produced useful guidance as to how we can work towards reducing our digital carbon footprint. The suggestions include:

  • Changing email habits, for example deleting older emails regularly and unsubscribing from unwanted newsletters.
  • Limiting video streaming and downloading content where possible.
  • Switching to a green cloud provider.
  • Unplugging devices when not in use.
  • Making devices and equipment last for as long as possible, disposing of old devices correctly, and purchasing refurbished or recycled devices where possible.
  • Storing data locally where possible and limiting cloud usage.

While individual behavioural changes are a part of the equation and certainly have the potential to make a significant difference, it is important to consider the wider context and look at changes that can be made at business and government level.

The ESCP Business School has highlighted the increasing need for businesses to be aware of the digital aspect of their carbon footprint, suggesting that the implementation of green ICT strategies will be crucial in helping organisations to meet sustainability goals, while also lowering costs.

Organisations have the potential to make a significant difference, for example by investing in green data centres and servers powered by renewable energy, building greener websites, refurbishing and repairing IT equipment to prolong its lifespan, and encouraging sustainable digital behaviours among employees.

What does this mean for policy?

As digital transformation continues at speed, the need for clear and effective policies around ICT and environmental protection becomes increasingly apparent. A 2018 report by Policy Connect called on governments and policy makers to recognise the energy consumption of the digital economy, to ensure best practice for the energy management of ICT, and to maximise the potential of carbon-saving digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and analytics.

This call to action is echoed in a 2021 report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, which emphasises the need for policy leaders to act quickly to harness technological innovation to address the climate crisis, reduce the cost of green technology, and encourage its adoption on a global scale.

As technology progresses and lines between the digital and physical world become increasingly blurred, policy makers will have the challenge of anticipating change and creating flexible policies to deal with rapid developments and manage the impact.

Final thoughts

Overall, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the potential for digital technologies to address climate change and mitigate the impact of the climate crisis. However looking to the digital future, with an increasing number of people and devices online and increased demands on infrastructure, it is important for the environmental impact of technology to be acknowledged, and the effects mitigated.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on digital transformation and decarbonising:

Taking the long view: futures thinking and why it matters

Local government and artificial intelligence: the benefits and the challenges

Transport’s journey to sustainability

Looking back and beyond: The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021

brown sand near body of water during daytime

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, then 2021 was surely the year of the ‘coronacoaster’. From the highs of vaccine rollouts and loosening of social restrictions to the lows of fluctuating case numbers and a worrying new virus variation, we’ve all become unwilling passengers on what feels like an endless un-funfair ride.

But while the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts, it hasn’t taken over complete control of our lives. Research, evidence gathering, conferences and partnerships have continued in fields as diverse as education and housing, culture and the environment.  Which is why, this year’s reflection on The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021 focuses on some of the issues that we covered which looked beyond the pandemic.

Saving the planet

Until the emergence of Covid-19, many regarded climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. That threat hasn’t gone away. Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the current state of the climate crisis, setting out the already devastating effects of climate change and warning of the deadly impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter.

Throughout this year, our blog has focused on this issue, highlighting the dangers posed by climate change and the efforts to tackle the problem. In April, we looked at the monumental challenge of decarbonising the UK’s ageing housing stock, and highlighted a survey showing that two-thirds of housing associations have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer.

“However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.”

We returned to the issue this month, with an overview of plans by government and industry to make the transition from gas boilers to greener ways of heating our homes.

In November, the landmark COP26 climate conference took place in Glasgow, and while the major talking points included protection of the world’s forests and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, our blog focused on how important the circular economy is to tackling global warming:

“…if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.”

The cultural imperative

From community murals to television drama, from open-air concerts to singers entertaining neighbours from their balconies, culture and the arts have played a vital role in diverting us from the grim news of the past two years. And although the arts have taken a severe hit during lockdowns, artists across the globe have continued to create and share their work.

In January, we highlighted some of the ways in which creative people have found new ways to express themselves and to support the wellbeing of others:

“Organisations and individuals have been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience: “I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

In April, our blog reported on efforts by cultural communities to break down some of the barriers to digital engagement. It’s estimated that seven million people in the UK don’t’ have digital access, while 11.7 million don’t have the digital skills needed to engage online. In an increasingly ‘digital by default’ society, those numbers are troubling.

Our blog post described some of the ways in which arts and cultural organisations are tackling digital exclusion:

“One project managed by Birmingham Museums involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities.”

Levelling up and the foundational economy

The economy is another recurring theme that we’ve highlighted in our blog. The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

In May we reported from a webinar looking at the scope for charities to get involved. On the face of it, the fact that much of the focus is on capital spending could be challenging for charities whose work involves tackling problems such as addiction or homelessness. However, our blog explained that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of obtaining levelling up funding:

“… a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.”

In February, we shone a light on the foundational economy, which provides some of the essential services of everyday life, such as food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. While these services are vital, many of the workers providing them are among the lowest paid in society.  Our blog looked at the potential value of the foundational economy for the post-pandemic recovery:

“It has been widely agreed that a return to a business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward, and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.”

The issues of our times

From town centres to smart cities, from Scotland’s burgeoning space sector to Britain’s hard-pressed food system, throughout the year we’ve been raising awareness of important issues that concern or impact on public policy and practice.

But we haven’t ignored the ongoing public health emergency. In November, we reported from a webinar on some of the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health; in July we looked at the important work of health librarians during the pandemic; and in May our blog reported on the role of behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques in public health, and in particular during the vaccine roll-outs.

Final thoughts

As we stand on the threshold of 2022, things look uncertain. But, as our blog posts have demonstrated throughout the past year, despite the anxieties and restrictions generated by the pandemic, great work can still be achieved by the public and private sectors, by charities, communities and individuals, for the benefit of society and the wider world.

All of us in The Knowledge Exchange team – Morwen, Donna, Heather, James, Rebecca, Hannah, Euan and Hollie –  would like to wish all our readers a safe and peaceful festive season, and very happy new year.

Follow us on Twitter to see which topics are interesting our research officers and keep up to date with our latest blogs

Decarbonising our buildings: heat pumps or hydrogen for the future of heating?

In October, the Scottish Government released the Heat in Buildings Strategy: Achieving Net Zero Emissions in Scotland’s Buildings. The strategy presents the approach to achieving the target for net zero emissions from Scotland’s buildings by 2045 and is a key component of the government’s ambitious climate change targets for wider society.

In the same month, the UK Government also unveiled its eagerly awaited Heat and Buildings Strategy. This includes similarly inspired aims, such as the phasing out of all new fossil fuel based heating system installations by 2035.

The coinciding release of the strategies means that the journey to decarbonisation is gradually becoming clearer to the consumer. Both governments have indicated their ambitions to make housing greener.

However, they also recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all to decarbonising the tens of millions of homes with mains gas boilers. This transition will be hugely complex, most likely requiring multiple technologies and approaches.

Industry contest heating up

The major players in the UK’s domestic heating industry – believed to be worth an estimated £17 billion – are already moving to secure their role in line with the new government plans and commitments.

In the future, there will be little place for the out-of-favour gas boiler. Traditional boiler manufacturers are aiming to evolve and align their products for long-term security,  whilst the manufacturers of technologies in their infancy, such as heat pumps, are presented with an opportunity to reform the industry for good.

It’s led to the cottage heat pump industry facing off against the established big gas companies’ development of hydrogen ready gas boilers.

Heat pumps the main contender

Whilst no quick fix technology is currently available to replace boilers, heat pumps are undoubtedly a viable frontrunner. The electric devices are steadily growing in government promotion and consumer popularity, as sales more than doubled in 2021 to give the industry its best ever year.

And, as a key feature of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, homeowners in England and Wales will be offered subsidies of up to £5,000 from April 2022 as an incentive to convert their gas boiler to a heat pump.

Heat pumps extract energy from a lower temperature source such as the ground or air and increase it to an appropriate temperature for a heat source in the home – via a compressor and a circulating structure of liquid or gas refrigerant. This heat can either be directly blown into the property or transferred into the central heating and hot water systems.

The selling point of heat pumps is their potential to greatly reduce carbon emissions if they are powered by low carbon electricity, which much of the UK now is. A new air source heat pump can lower a home’s carbon emissions by over 23 tonnes over 10 years.

Whilst relatively novel, the technology behind air source heat pumps is well established with evident positives. They are typically safer than combustion systems, have a very long lifespan with little maintenance and can double up as an air conditioner during the summer months.

Despite the UK Government and Climate Change Committee (CCC) pushing heat pumps as a blueprint for decarbonising, they are not free of concerns and complications.

Heat pumps are expensive to buy and install upfront and, similarly to boilers, the cost can vary. According to the Energy Saving Trust, an air source heat pump will generally cost around £3,000- £4,000 for an average sized house pre-installation and around £7,000-£13,000 installed – raising concerns about affordability and the average consumer’s willingness to go green.

They are, however, very efficient once installed. With an average efficiency of 250%-350%, a heat pump is likely to save you money, compared to an old gas and oil-fired boiler or electric heating. In well-insulated homes, heating bill savings of as much as 60% can be achieved.

Sufficient insulation is a critical pre-requisite to heat pump success. Commenting on the release of the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas described placing heat pumps in Britain’s poorly insulated homes as like “using a teapot full of cracks: its leaky, its inefficient and it’s a waste of money.“

The UK’s housing stock is among the most poorly insulated in Europe and the current insulation of an ageing stock, like Glasgow’s Victorian tenements, poses a real barrier to the mass roll-out of heat pumps. Whilst heat pumps are suitable for older properties, consumers will need to commit to a considerable amount of insulation upgrades and home disruption to realise their benefits.

Hydrogen

An intriguing alternative that is in the developmental stages to replace gas is the use of hydrogen, the most abundant element in the natural world.

Hydrogen is already being heavily researched as a fossil fuel alternative in transport, and support for its role in heating is growing in popularity.

A study by the Institution of Engineers and Technology (IET) found that there is no clear reason as to why hydrogen gas cannot be seriously considered as a clean and safe alternative on the UK grid. Similar to heat pumps, hydrogen has the potential to be entirely renewable with no carbon emissions.

Hydrogen is also attractive as it requires minimal disruption in terms of new appliances and installation in the home. Consumers would use a hydrogen ready boiler that works almost identically to a traditional boiler. Likewise, the UK’s existing gas pipe system is well placed to make the switch due to the ongoing systematic replacement of old, unsuitable iron pipes over the last 20 years.

However, creating a new national network of hydrogen supply to the country’s homes would be a monumental and extremely expensive challenge that has never been done before. Concerns also exist around the extraction of hydrogen at this scale, as it is likely to be extracted from methane.

The extraction process emits carbon emissions which must be contained and stored through carbon capturing. Carbon capture projects of this scale do not currently exist and the idea is still under development, raising concerns around greenhouse gas emissions as a by-product of hydrogen extraction.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that the challenge of reducing building emissions is no longer just about grand intentions and targets. Whilst these are important to commit to, focus must now turn to ironing out the practicalities of how these will be achieved.

At the moment, the only established technology able to deliver clean heating is the heat pump. Yet, the UK has the worst heat pump sales and second worst installation record in Europe for a country its size. Technology such as hydrogen has potential but is still in the very early stages with many unknowns.

The UK must speed up investment in these industries to meet ambitious targets, with more detail, support and incentives for consumers.


Further reading: more on energy efficiency and decarbonisation from The Knowledge Exchange blog: