“Scope 1, Scope 2, Scope 3, territorial emissions, consumption emissions”. These concepts encompass the ways in which greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts are accounted for around the world. They are also woven throughout the agreements and policies that aim to reduce GHG emissions: the Paris Agreement, Science Based Targets, and net zero targets all rely on these categories to define how much we are emitting and where it is happening.
However, there is a problem with these widely-used categories. In a context where we urgently need someone to take responsibility for each tonne of GHG and think about how it can be reduced, the current terminology isn’t very helpful. We see that manifested, for example, in the different ways that UK local authorities are setting targets and thereby deciding what they will take responsibility for.
Many local authorities across the country have declared a climate emergency – often with a goal to achieve net zero by 2030, well ahead of the UK Government’s target to reach net zero by 2050 – and Eunomia has worked with several to turn their declarations into plans for action. This most often involves developing a Net Zero Strategy, but the accounting approach each takes has varied. All of the current approaches present some knotty challenges when it comes to the GHG accounting rules, but no current set of categories neatly defines the emissions one might consider the authority to be “responsible” for. In this article, I explore where authorities might want to draw that line.
My job? Scopes 1, 2 and 3
The language of “scopes” is drawn from the GHG Protocol, developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Scopes 1 and 2 are the simplest starting point, with scope 1 representing the emissions from the energy consumed in an authority’s buildings and transport and scope 2 emissions being those generated elsewhere in order to produce the electricity consumed on site. If buildings and vehicles are rented it can somewhat complicate the question of who is responsible for the emissions – one might say that if a council hires a vehicle, it should be responsible for the emissions; but would we also say it remains responsible for emissions from council-owned homes that it rents out? This question, of where scope 1 and 2 slip into scope 3, is a tricky one, which has been interpreted differently by various authorities.
The scope 3 complexity continues with the council’s supply chain. This encompasses all of the goods and services the council buys, from the production of the computers council staff use, to bought-in green space maintenance services, to housing supplied by registered social landlords. That makes it extremely important, as scope 3 emissions can be far greater than scope 1 and 2 for an organisation that buys in a great deal of what it needs. It is also a sphere where an authority can make a good deal of difference, by making emissions reduction a priority in how it procures. However, to properly account for and address scope 3 emissions in a net zero plan, you need two things:
- To understand them accurately.
For this, the council needs a good deal of data to enable it to measure the carbon intensity of its supply chain. At present, this data is hard to come by, and it’s common for analysis to be based on assumptions and typical values. Until we account for carbon with the same rigour that applies to flows of money it will be difficult to measure scope 3 emissions accurately, or to monitor change over time. Obtaining better data will facilitate a significant change in how councils perceive their ‘spending’ choices and their contribution towards meeting their climate change objectives.
2. To influence the emissions intensity of their supply chain.
For an authority to get all of its suppliers to decarbonise by 2030 is nigh-on impossible, but local authorities are significant purchasers of goods and services and could have a significant impact, especially if they co-ordinated their efforts. Imagine if the major local authority purchasing organisations, such as YPO and ESPO, signalled to their suppliers that all goods and services to be sold through their frameworks would in future need to have a verified carbon “price” alongside their financial price. This would enable authorities to start taking carbon emissions into account in their procurement decisions and start driving competition amongst suppliers to decarbonise.
While these challenges make authorities hesitant about including scope 3 emissions in their net zero strategies, they are major components of a council’s carbon footprint and within an authority’s capacity to manage (by using goods more efficiently) and influence (through engagement with their supply chain), and therefore authorities would be well advised to account for scope 3 emissions within their net zero planning.
Someone else’s job? Territorial and consumption emissions
A different way to look at emissions is the distinction between ‘territorial’ and ‘consumption’ emissions.
If an authority adopts a ‘territorial’ approach, it means taking account of all GHG emissions within the geographic area of the local authority, whether attributable to the authority’s activities or not. There are standard expectations for what should be included in this – things like emissions from homes, businesses, green spaces.
This can lead to a far broader range of emissions than the ‘scopes’ approach, because it is based not on who owns the product or service that is emitting, but where it is. To complicate matters, some things, like transport and waste, aren’t static. Where does transport originate? Where is it going? In the UK, not all local authorities use waste management facilities within their own boundaries – so in purely ‘territorial’ terms, the emissions are someone else’s problem.
GHG emissions simply don’t fit neatly into territorial boundaries. While there is a GHG Protocol for Cities which can support consultants in counting emissions from these fuzzy sources, this doesn’t necessarily tell us whose job it is to reduce these emissions. We can also look at ‘consumption’ emissions – the GHGs that come from all of the goods and services used in the authority’s area. In this framework the scope of the emissions covered becomes still more expansive, stretching around the world.
Authorities certainly do not have full control over local territorial emissions or consumption emissions from activities undertaken in their area, and it would be unreasonable for them to take full responsibility for them. However, they do have the ability to influence these emissions through policy and planning decisions, and the impact of such measures could be far greater in terms of the absolute reduction in GHGs than if an authority focuses narrowly on reducing its own scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.
Whose job is Net Zero?
The UK Government is quite clear what its goal is: net zero for our national territory by 2050. This ambition should be lauded, and it has been vital to focus minds in the fight to address the climate crisis. However, translating net zero to the local authority level magnifies creates a number of issues, as the sources of emissions and the opportunities to offset them aren’t evenly spread. The job of reaching territorial net zero is far harder for a densely populated urban area than for a green, leafy rural area that may well produce fewer emissions and have more potential for carbon negative actions (such as tree planting). An authority whose boundaries contain a gas-fired power station would have a far harder job than an otherwise similar neighbour that doesn’t.
Reviewing these options, it is evident that authorities that wish to target net zero are faced with a variety of metrics that are actually ill-suited to their needs. Either the net zero targets focus too narrowly on the authority’s own emissions, ignoring the wider impact that they can achieve; or they are too wide, and include many emissions that will require transformational, national shifts to eliminate.
Local authority net zero targets are extremely useful, not least in the message they send. A local authority is uniquely placed to drive action locally, with exceptional knowledge of local actors, needs, and resources; but decarbonising locality by locality isn’t the way to go. Too much of what needs to happen is beyond local authorities’ ability to influence, let alone control. In particular, when “who should be held accountable” also implies “and should pay”, councils need to be somewhat cautious about what they take responsibility for.
We need to use our entire national landscape to deliver the national net zero strategy. This is a joint endeavour that requires big-picture thinking. Where areas of responsibility and influence are overlapping, we need to think in a more granular way about who is best placed to actually tackle emissions. Reasonable actions towards net zero come out of data, logical and broad thinking, and a clear large-scale objective that provides each local authority with its own agenda and priorities.
Featured image: Bristol City Council