The excellent attendance at November’s conference hosted by Friends of the Earth entitled “Councils, Communities and Climate Change” confirmed the continued interest of local authorities in issues relating to climate change. At the event, Friends of the Earth once again made the case for local authority carbon budgets, arguing that councils are well placed to lead on action at the local level to reduce climate change impacts.
The event was dominated by discussion on activities relating to incentivising renewable energy projects. This was perhaps inevitable given the announcement of the removal of support for small-scale solar PV in the weeks immediately prior to the conference – but something where the scope of local authority action is quite limited.
Given the focus on energy impacts, it was an unexpected and very interesting change of direction when the last speaker – Sir Richard Leese from Manchester City Council – explained how the city is taking a consumption-based approach to calculating its carbon budget.
So much to answer for
The approach taken by the City of Manchester differs from the production-based approach commonly used at national level: in the UK’s submission to the IPCC, for example, only emissions originating within our borders are included.
Crucially, however, whilst the UK’s production-related greenhouse gas emissions have decreased since 1990, its consumption-based emissions – taking into account the impact of all the goods and services consumed by UK citizens irrespective of their country of origin – have increased. This partly relates to the continued decline in the country’s manufacturing base, and the corresponding increase in the amount of what we consume that is imported.
The consumption-based approach to emissions reporting is not only a fairer way of calculating the climate change impacts of our behaviour in an increasingly global society. It also helps to highlight the real impact that changes in policy are having. The increase in recycling rates is a real success story of behavioural change happening at a local level, managed by local authorities – behavioural change that has resulted in reduced climate change impacts, which are only really measurable once the boundary of emissions reporting is extended beyond the local authority area to take account of the whole production process.
The consumption-based approach to emissions accounting therefore provides a more inclusive baseline, making it possible to see how much local authorities are already contributing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through their role in waste management. It also highlights the impact of activities such as waste prevention – for example, each tonne food waste avoided results in a 4.5 tonne reduction in CO2 emissions. .
Of course, engaging individuals in recycling services won’t, by itself, be enough to reduce climate change emissions down to the levels required by the UK’s ambitious Climate Change Act. But the consumption-based approach at least allows for the climate change benefits of improved waste management to be seen properly in context. It would allow us to see how far we’ve come as well as far we have to go…. I would love to see councils not only recognising the case for local carbon budgets, but setting them using a consumption-based accounting approach following the lead taken by the City of Manchester.