Can a city ever be truly ‘carbon neutral’?

Manchester Skyline. Image: Ian Carroll (CC BY 2.0)

This guest blog was written by Joe Blakey, PhD Researcher and Sherilyn MacGregor, Reader in Environmental Politics, at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

Upon becoming Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor, Andy Burnham announced his ambition to make the city-region one of the greenest in Europe. In his Mayor’s manifesto, the former MP and Labour leadership candidate, committed to “a new, accelerated ambition for Greater Manchester on the green economy and carbon neutrality”. If achieved, Manchester would be transformed from one-time poster city for Britain’s dirty past to a decarbonised oasis in the post-industrial north-west of England. What it will take to realise this vision was the topic of a “Green Summit” held in Manchester on March 21.

The summit brought together some of the best minds from Greater Manchester’s universities and businesses, local activists and residents to debate how to “achieve carbon neutrality as early as possible”, ideally by 2050. Leading up to the summit, expert workshops and “listening events” were held across the region, in order to inform a forthcoming Green Charter, the plan for how the city will become “carbon neutral”.

We argue that the concept of “carbon neutrality” is a lofty ambition, but it needs unpacking before anyone gets too excited about its potential. The idea that a zero carbon target is the best driver for creating a city-region and a planet that’s inclusive and liveable for all raises important questions.

Understanding carbon

Carbon neutrality, or “zero-carbon”, is a curious term. NASA remarks that “carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilisations – our homes, our means of transport – are built on carbon”. Even our bodies are 18.5% carbon. Ridding our cities of carbon suddenly seems absurd. Removing the “backbone of our life on Earth” is surely not on Burnham’s eco-agenda. So what does “carbon neutral by 2050” actually mean? Understanding a little about carbon footprinting helps to expose the nuances and silences behind the ambition.

Carbon is emitted at various points within the production, transportation and consumption of goods and services, but establishing responsibility for these emissions depends on your standpoint. Is it the consumer, the manufacturer, the haulage firm, the investor, the source country or the destination country? Our actions and impacts do not respect political boundaries.

Governments typically count carbon emissions following guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Taking a “territorially-based” approach, only the direct carbon emissions (and removals) taking place within a certain city or a country are counted, along with those from the production of the energy consumed. “Carbon” stands for a whole raft of greenhouse gases, including CO₂. This approach underpins declarations of successes and failures worldwide, but it’s just one way to allocate carbon emissions. And herein lies the issue.

An alternative “consumption-based” accounting is more often used by environmental NGOs such as the WWF or some parts of the UK government. This approach counts the total emissions from goods and services (including travel) consumed by a person, city or country, regardless of where they occurred. Under consumption-based accounting, eating an imported steak means factoring in shipping emissions, the plastic used in packaging, and the emissions from the cow itself – all of which take place far outside of the typical “footprint”. One recent analysis found a group of large cities across the world emitted 60% more carbon when considered like this.

But will Greater Manchester, the aspiring “Northern Powerhouse”, really want to include emissions from such key drivers of economic growth? The city-region has a busy airport, for instance, that it might be convenient to exclude under “zero carbon”. Greater Manchester’s ambition may be laudable, but the zero-carbon definition risks side-lining much-needed action in other areas.

There is some degree of hope. Greater Manchester is implementing a new standard which extends the IPCC’s approach, also considering emissions from residents’ travel beyond Greater Manchester and waste disposed of beyond the city-region. This is significantly more ambitious than a territorial-based approach. But, even if “zero-carbon” was defined under this approach, there would still be difficult questions as to what extent aviation emissions would be included – if at all – not to mention other consumption-based emissions, such as those from imported food.

Cleaner, greener, and lower carbon

In any case, the city needs environmental policies beyond the focus on becoming “carbon neutral”. Litter is one of the top resident concerns about environmental quality, for instance, while a recent study by MMU’s Gina Cavan found many people in the city have limited access to green and blue spaces. Research by our colleagues found the greatest level of microplastics ever recorded anywhere on the planet in Manchester’s very own River Tame.

No doubt the mayor and his team will be concerned about these other problems too. But the pollution crises and the lack of access to green spaces are questions of environmental injustice, and their root causes will not necessarily be addressed by carbon neutrality. To avoid obscuring other areas of action, it’s vital that claims about a “carbon neutral” future clearly state what they are referring to.

Carbon neutrality doesn’t cover everything – it might only be concerned with decarbonising energy and in-boundary emissions. If Greater Manchester is serious about becoming greener, cleaner and inclusive, then there needs to be accountability for other perspectives on emissions responsibility, including those associated with consumption and aviation.


Joe Blakey is a PhD Researcher at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester; Sherilyn MacGregor is Reader in Environmental Politics at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation website and has been republished with permission under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Eco-Cultures: blending arts and the environment

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the "Concrete Antenna"

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, with the “Concrete Antenna” Image: John Lord via Creative Commons

By James Carson

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.
Wendell Berry

The worlds of place and imagination came together last weekend at EcoCultures, Glasgow’s festival of environmental research, policy and practice. With over 40 presentations covering topics as diverse as land reform, poetry, sculpture and urban ecology, the festival provided numerous opportunities to learn how artists, scientists and community activists are responding in very different ways to their environments.

Sharing a sense of place

For Rebecca Crowther, exploring shared experiences of nature is important for understanding notions of belonging. Rebecca’s PhD thesis is based on collecting and truthfully representing stories, watching people interact with the natural world, and collaboratively documenting experiences using journals and photographs. As Rebecca observed: “The stories people tell about places reveal which places matter to them, and why.”

Community gardens

Blair Cunningham’s presentation also highlighted the value of places for collective sharing. As part of a larger body of research looking at Glasgow’s growing network of community gardens, Blair was commissioned to create an artist book to explore some of the issues raised by the research, such as community empowerment and social inclusion.

ArtistBook

Blair Cunningham’s Artist Book. Image produced by permission of Aye-Aye Books

He described the process of identifying these community gardens, some of which are hidden from view, but still very-well used by their communities. As well as providing spaces for growing plants, fruit and vegetables, community gardens are also meeting places, with many offering learning opportunities, such as cookery classes. However, they are also engaged in a battle to survive. While some are dependent on grant funding, others rely on the good will of landowners, which may be withdrawn if the land can be sold for property development. Even so, the numbers of community gardens in Glasgow continue to grow.

Environmental policy

Growth of a different kind was under discussion at the environmental policy session.  Luke Devlin, from the Centre for Human Ecology, noted that the consumerist way of life had emerged as a significant measure of growth, and that very little policy was challenging that narrative. Growth, at any cost, he argued, means people and natural resources have become expendable. With 2015 likely to be the hottest on record for the planet, Luke held out little optimism for the outcome of the UN climate change talks next month in Paris.

However, Patrick Harvie MSP, from the Scottish Green Party offered some signs of hope. When the Green Party was established in 1973, he observed, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. But now, he said, recycling is seen as imperative for households, companies and local authorities. Every political party in the Scottish Parliament supports climate change targets, and MSPs are held to account for their environmental policies. Another measure of progress, he suggested, was the recent speech given by Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, warning bankers and insurers on the risks of climate change, something unthinkable a decade ago.

All of this, Patrick argued, was still not enough, but politicians had to remind people that further progress was still possible:  “We cannot engage with the public on the basis that we’re all doomed.”

The artist’s response to climate change

Throughout the day, artists provided evidence of creative responses to environmental change. Rob St John showed a film about the “Concrete Antenna”, a sound installation at Newhaven, near Edinburgh. The antenna evokes the site’s various histories as a blacksmith, a railway siding and now a thriving creative workshop beside a wildlife-rich cycle route.

Later, Marlene Creates explained the development of her Boreal Poetry Garden in six acres of forest outside St John’s, Newfoundland. During the summer months, Marlene leads visitors on a walk through the garden, pausing to read site-specific poems. Sometimes, special guests, such as geologists or musicians will add further dimensions to the walk.

The garden is Marlene’s way of raising awareness about the threat to the Boreal forest, which covers a vast area across Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and a small part of Scotland. As Marlene observed, its immensity is no guarantee of its protection from climate change and deforestation. Even in her own neighbourhood, she reported, parts of the forest are being converted to lawns.

Like many of the contributions to the EcoCultures event, Marlene’s poetry garden served as a reminder that individuals and communities are finding ever-more creative ways to describe, protect and live with their ever-changing environment.

 

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