How can cities policy help the net zero agenda?

Author(s): Rebecca Foster; Sophie O'Connell; Patrick Schroder; Rob Whitehead

November 9, 2021

As COP26 comes to a close what are some of the changes we can make in cities that can help with the net zero agenda?

A greater uptake of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is required

By Rebecca Foster (Bright Blue)

The UK’s pledge to reach net zero by 2050 will ultimately require significant changes to the way cities operate – around  83% of the UK’s population reside in urban areas and statistics show that the 63 largest cities and towns in the UK account for almost half of all of the country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Decarbonising city transportation is a clear example of where change is needed. Exhaust emissions in cities are trapped in by tall buildings causing nitrous oxides to build up, resulting in poor air quality that harms the environment and citizens.

To decarbonise transport  in cities, a greater uptake of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is required. BEVs emit zero tailpipe emissions, which leads to less CO2 and nitrous oxides polluting our environment. The UK government has said that it will ban conventional fossil fuel vehicle sales by 2030, and only allow zero-emission vehicles from 2035 to help tackle such challenges and reach the net zero.

Bright Blue’s recent Driving uptake report points out what more the Government can do to incentivise BEV uptake now, opening up BEV ownership to as many people as possible. Bright Blue has called for a great focus on expanding access to affordable, second-hand BEVs by introducing a Used Vehicle Plug-in Car Grant of at least £2,000. This would support less well-off households into BEV ownership, and expand the uptake of BEVs generally. While decarbonising public transport should remain a priority for government policy, private ownership of vehicles will persist, and this policy reflects the need to make private BEVs as affordable as possible to the widest range of drivers.

Cities’ jurisdiction over transport networks, urban planning and local economic development is an opportunity for them to go further than national governments

By Sophie O’Connell (Green Alliance)

Despite cities covering just two per cent of the Earth’s surface, over half of the world’s population live in them. Cities produce over 80 per cent of global GDP, more than 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and consume 60 per cent of the world’s energy. So, what part should they be playing in tackling climate change and restoring biodiversity?

Cities’ jurisdiction over transport networks, urban planning and local economic development is an opportunity for them to go further than national governments on setting climate targets and taking more stringent action.

The transport sector is the largest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions. However, with more active travel and zero emission vehicle infrastructure, clean air zones and efficient public transport services, cities can lead the way on decarbonising transport. Green Alliance’s report The case for clean air zones, identified that they improve air quality and public health in addition to lowering congestion and increasing economic productivity. Only three months after the launch of Birmingham’s clean air zone this year, Public First’s research for Green Alliance found strong support from city residents for further public transport investment.

Trees also provide a multitude of environmental benefits to urban areas, namely reducing air pollution concentrations through carbon absorption and forming physical barriers between roads and pedestrian areas; reducing urban flooding by absorbing excess stormwater; and lessening the urban heat island effect through providing shade.

With strong public support for environmental action and the imperative to act made clear at the Glasgow climate summit, now is the time to harness the power of cities to drive a greener future.

Urban net zero strategies are also need to create new socio-economic opportunities, reduce poverty and inequality, and improve the health of citizens

By Patrick Schroder (Chatham House)

Cities’ policies and actions will be key to tackling climate change. National governments will depend on cities to achieve their net zero targets and more ambitious climate commitments. In fact, it is often local and municipal governments which are the driving forces. An example is Japan where local and regional governments have been leading the way in committing to carbon neutrality by 2050.

In the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, a number of cities have made net zero announcements. Many have already taken concrete action towards achieving climate goals. The Swedish city of Malmö aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. To reduce the impact from construction and the built environment, the city and more than 170 construction-related companies are working together to restructure and refurbish existing buildings to become net zero.

Municipal governments can enact policies and master plans across all sectors, in all urban systems and processes. To achieve climate neutrality local and regional governments should set a clear goal and advance rapidly following a holistic and integrated approach that leads to a wide range of co-benefits for sustainable development. On the institutional level, it is important to align environment, climate objectives and urban infrastructure planning. In Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Secretariat of Environment, Urban Planning and Sustainability has integrated sustainability efforts with the city’s urban planning. Furthermore, the city’s participatory and deliberative approaches have allowed for the expansion of strategic actions for environmental urban development.

Urban net zero strategies also need to create new socio-economic opportunities, reduce poverty and inequality, and improve the health of citizens. Municipal policymakers need to ensure that green infrastructures are also inclusive and provide access for all citizens. Decarbonising urban transport systems provides multiple co-benefits such as improved air quality and better health outcomes. Specific net zero policies can include restrictions on car use, creation of new bike lanes and enabling walkable cities.

To achieve net zero climate targets will also require setting zero waste targets and circular economy strategies. Many cities have set targets in line with the waste hierarchy to reduce and eventually to phase out waste by creating and implementing systems that do not generate waste in the first place.

Implementing regeneration programmes in urban spaces, using nature-based solutions and creating conservation areas to enable biodiversity and natural carbon sinks in cities are equally important. This also helps urban adaptation measures to reduce urban heat island effects and prevent flooding.

Implementing these changes often requires investments that are beyond the budget of municipal governments. There are opportunities for new public-private partnerships for climate resilient infrastructure. Furthermore, to promote green structures and to incentivize protective environment practices through changing tax incentives for property development.

In summary, there are multiple options for cities to support net zero targets and implement initiatives, all of which will gain in importance as the world requires more ambitious actions to address climate change.

We need a serious push from government but also the flexibility to tailor policy and incentives to work in our cities

By Rob Whitehead (Centre for London)

The Mayor of London has set an ambitious target for London to reach net-zero emissions by 2030, 20 years before the UK government. But many of the policy levers to decarbonise are controlled nationally. In some areas that makes sense, such as energy supply. But it’s becoming clear that city-sized answers are needed to tackle the next biggest challenges, transport and heating.

On transport the Mayor has a lot of power to make a difference. The Mayor is in charge of Transport for London and so most public transport, and other aspects like road use charging, cycle superhighways, taxis etc. But the Mayor is far from in control of TfL’s finances. Here, Whitehall holds most of the cards, so it can be difficult to, for example, raise the capital to electrify the bus fleet.  Whitehall also broadly holds the ring on road vehicle policy, from regulations to taxation. The reality is that while the government touts a ‘London style’ transport system for other cities, the Mayor actually operates with one arm tied behind their back. Greater devolution could fix this.

On heating things are worse. Unlike transport, where at least the trajectory and technologies we need to use are pretty clear and set, we are a long way from stopping using gas to warm our homes.  Contrast the number of people perhaps that you know have an electric car versus those with heat pumps, or EPC rated A or B homes. Not only do we need a serious push from government, which is now perhaps emerging, but we also need the flexibility to tailor policy and incentives to work in our cities. Evidence shows that grant schemes for heat pumps thus far have been far less popular in London than elsewhere. In part this is because London’s housing stock (older and more likely extended) and the vast number of rented properties. Getting landlords over the line on energy efficiency and heating transition will need a policy mix that fits local realities, and local leadership and institutions to force the pace.

Cities can lead from the front on net zero

By Alexander Luke (Onward)

The UK has made significant progress towards net zero, decarbonising by more than 44% below 1990 levels of emissions. However, much of the low-hanging fruit has now been picked, with the near-total elimination of coal from the energy mix spurred by the rapid rollout of offshore wind. Little-to-no headway towards decarbonisation has been made in terms of our residential or transport emissions, which have remained roughly unchanged since 1990.

Reaching net zero within these two sectors will require the rapid uptake of Electric Vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps to transition away from petrol and diesel cars and gas boilers. But a recent Onward paper, ‘Green Shoots’, showed that the rollout of these new green technologies is not occurring at anywhere near the scale required. The rollout of heat pumps, for example, will not be completed until 2187 on the current trajectory.

It is with these new green technologies that cities can have the greatest role to play. A landmark new polling report from Onward, ‘Thin Ice?’ found that support for net zero policies tends to be particularly concentrated in the UK’s major city regions. It is in these areas that consumers are most willing to foot the bill to tackle climate change, by stumping up for high-grade insulation or paying more in taxes to fund more electric vehicles.

The Government should build on this by devolving more funding to combined and unitary authorities, to accelerate the rollout of EVs and low-carbon heating. Local government often has a better understanding of local travel patterns, housing stock and economic dependencies, and so is well placed to enact change.

The appetite for action in cities makes them the ideal place to start.