In the year 2020, cities around the world were responsible for a staggering 67% of the greenhouse gas emissions driving the relentless march of climate change. This startling fact has prompted not just national politicians, but mayors of these cities, to set ambitious targets for reducing emissions within their urban domains.
But here’s the question: Are these aspirations rooted in reality? How much can cities and local councils truly accomplish on their own in the journey to net zero? Undoubtedly, they have significant power, yet they are not without limitations.
The monumental task of drastically reducing urban emissions necessitates a profound overhaul of sectors ranging from transportation and electricity generation to home heating. Many policies capable of reshaping public behavior, stimulating investments in new technologies, and reshaping the economy simply cannot be executed solely by city hall.
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While setting targets is a crucial initial step, ambitious goals serve as a beacon, signaling a city’s alignment with the national government’s green vision. However, setting unrealistic targets or failing to communicate the complexity of the coordinated changes required may undermine public confidence in the overall endeavor, particularly if progress proves more intricate than initially envisioned.
Recently, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attempted to tap into supposed discontent with air pollution measures among London voters, emphasizing that his government’s plans to achieve net zero by 2050 won’t burden people with unnecessary hassle and costs in their lives.
The potential for policies to falter also looms if there’s insufficient coordination between city planners, business leaders, and politicians. Our recent research delved into these issues in Glasgow, a city with a fascinating history tracing its population and wealth back to the industrial revolution, fueled by coal and iron ore. Glasgow, once reliant on fossil fuels, now aspires to be a leader in the green economy.
In 2019, Glasgow boldly set a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030. This transition is intertwined with the city’s regeneration through the Glasgow Green Deal, designed to reduce emissions, bolster environmental resilience, generate jobs, and combat poverty.
Recent data indicates a 47% drop in Glasgow’s emissions from 2005 to 2021, a commendable achievement. However, a significant portion of this decline is attributed to national efforts to decarbonise the electricity system, with relatively little credited to local policies.
Glasgow’s progress is indeed impressive, but the ability of cities to dictate the speed and scale of the net-zero transition hinges on the balance of power between national and regional policymakers.
Transportation, for instance, plays a pivotal role in emissions reduction, yet Glasgow’s control over it is limited. A substantial portion of the city’s emissions stems from motorway traffic, which falls under the purview of the devolved Scottish government in Edinburgh. Fuel taxes, too, are determined by the UK government in London.
Public transport responsibility is also fragmented. While the local rail network is overseen by the Scottish government-owned ScotRail, bus regulation remains the city council’s responsibility. Without cooperation from both the UK and Scottish governments, decisions made in Glasgow have limited influence on the bulk of the city’s emissions.
Additionally, determining how to account for these emissions is complex. Do car journeys made by residents passing through the city count toward Glasgow’s total? What about emissions from Glasgow-based businesses producing goods consumed elsewhere? Even international and domestic air travel, a major source of emissions, often falls outside the scope of city tracking and elimination efforts.
Glasgow’s annual emissions report provides data within broad categories, leaving many details unclear. Moreover, numerous agencies, including businesses, community groups, and nonprofits, operate beyond the city council’s authority. Coordinating these efforts and predicting their impact on other agencies and objectives is a formidable challenge.
However, Glasgow’s experience offers a valuable lesson: cities can play a pivotal role by rallying local groups to focus on the net-zero mission. While targets are essential, the true heavy lifting lies in managing and coordinating these efforts. Recent backsliding by the UK government on net zero is likely to have the most significant impact in this regard.