Submit your nomination for the 2024 Socitm Awards

Net zero: How local authorities can help decarbonise their areas

Authors and contributors: S A Mathieson, Martin Ferguson

Net zero: How local authorities can help decarbonise their areas

This briefing is the first of two that examines the role of local authorities in playing a place-based role to achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions and the scope for Digital and IT leaders to harness technologies and data in these endeavours. It  focuses on innovative and targeted approaches that can deliver significant results while maintaining political and community support. It explores what some local authorities are undertaking and how harnessing technologies and data can play its part.

A second briefing will examine ways of reducing IT lifecycle emissions.

Purpose of this briefing

This briefing is the first of two that examines the role of local authorities in playing a place-based role to achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions and the scope for Digital and IT leaders to harness technologies and data in these endeavours.

This briefing focuses on innovative and targeted approaches that can deliver significant results while maintaining political and community support. It explores what some local authorities are undertaking and how harnessing technologies and data can play its part.

The second briefing will examine ways of reducing IT lifecycle emissions.

Audiences for this briefing

This briefing will be of interest to politicians, private sector leaders, senior policy makers, local digital leaders, technology practitioners, service specific leaders across the wider public sector.

What is net zero?

Humanity is currently responsible for releasing around 55 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or equivalents (55GtCO2e) into the atmosphere each year. While carbon dioxide is a natural component of the atmosphere, human activities have increased its atmospheric levels from around 280 parts per million to around 420 parts per million today.

This and increases in other ‘greenhouse gases’, primarily methane and nitrous oxide, have warmed the world’s climate by around 1.1 degrees Celsius so far.

Ending climate change generated by human activity will require the world to get to ‘net zero’ emissions, so-called because activities such as planting new trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, although most of the effort involves cutting greenhouse gas emissions rather than offsetting them.

Global targets to reduce emissions are agreed by countries at UN conferences of the parties (COPs). At the 2021 COP26 conference in Glasgow countries representing more than 90% of world economic output agreed to net zero commitments, with the aim of keeping the change to global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In 2019, the UK passed a law requiring the country to move to net zero by 2050. More than 80 countries, as well as hundreds of regions, cities and businesses, have set net zero target dates although fewer have made these legally binding. But global greenhouse gas emissions rose by nearly 50% between 1990 and 2021 and show no signs of falling.

What and who causes emissions?

Energy production, including for industrial processes, transport and buildings, was responsible for 73% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, according to work by Oxford University-based data researcher Our World In Data. Agriculture, forestry and land use produced a further 18%, with the rest from cement and chemical production and waste. Aviation is responsible for around 2%, compared with 12% for road transport. Information and communications technology may be responsible for 2.1%-3.9%, according to research by Lancaster University.

It isn’t realistic to reach net zero by seeking to abolish a few ‘bad’ activities, as most human activity involves the use of energy, land or both. The most obvious way to reduce emissions is to decarbonise electricity production by shifting to low-carbon sources and moving processes directly powered by fossil fuels, such as transport and heating, to electricity.

Some countries, including the UK, have gone a long way towards electricity decarbonisation. Coal produced more than 95% of British electricity in the first half of the 20th century, falling below 50% in the 1990s, to under 2% in 2021 and ending completely in 2024. In 2021 natural gas, a less carbon-intensive fossil fuel, was the largest single source of electricity generation at 37% but renewables produced the same amount with wind alone generating 20%, a proportion that is rising quickly as large offshore wind farms come online. Electricity decarbonisation has helped the UK cut its emissions by just over half from a 1971 peak of 886MtCO2e (million tonnes of carbon dioxide and equivalents) to 421MtCO2e in 2021, with most of the decline taking place since 2005. Other countries, mainly in Europe, have made similar progress.

Recent years have seen China and to a lesser extent India increasing their emissions, cancelling out reductions elsewhere. In 2012 China produced 13.71GtCO2e, more than 2.5 times as much as in 2000, and now produces 54% more emissions per person than the UK.

What can local government do?

The UK Government has set out a net zero framework for local government that recognises the critical role of local authorities in taking action to deliver its net zero ambitions.

In England, the Local Government Association has reinforced this view setting out how councils can to work as partners with Government to support and advance on the UK’s net zero target by 2050. It identifies the areas in which local authorities can translate national climate ambitions into transformative action:

  • Place shapers – places are intrinsically local and councils are the master planners
  • Purchasers – procurement is a key power that councils have to deliver net zero
  • Problem solvers – councils have been delivering solutions to local problems for centuries
  • Asset owners – councils are landowners and have significant building stock
  • Convenors – councils can bring together local partners, businesses and civil society.

The LGA has produced business cases for delivering net zero faster in three areas, namely buildings, transport and energy. It is partnering with University College London on a Net Zero Transition Programme in 12 local authorities, while over 300 local authorities had declared a ‘climate emergency’ by late 2021.

A few councils have set net zero target dates earlier than the UK’s national target of 2050. For example, the City of Edinburgh Council is aiming for 2030. Its ambitious plan includes many of the ideas covered in sections below and these are likely to have a significant impact, but the plan effectively recognises that the council cannot achieve this alone by calling on the Scottish Government (which has set a net zero target date of 2045 for Scotland as a whole) to make a number of changes.

What local authorities can do is to provide powerful, place-specific support for decarbonisation work in a number of crucial areas. A 2021 report by the University of Edinburgh’s Climate Change Institute estimated that while local authorities contribute just 6% of UK emissions, more than 30% of planned emission reductions rely to some extent on local government involvement.

The role of Digital and IT leaders

Digital and IT leaders can play their part in reducing carbon emissions by:

  • harnessing technologies and data to identify opportunities, to measure performance, and to integrate and target services more effectively around user needs
  • reducing emissions generated throughout the supply chain and lifecycle for technology equipment, infrastructure and services, including their manufacture, operation and use.

This briefing focuses on the first of these two areas, while a further briefing will examine ways of reducing lifecycle emissions.

Understanding local data

An initial step is to understand an area’s emissions at present. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), publishes annual analyses of carbon dioxide emissions by local authority area. In June 2022, it included data for methane and nitrous oxide, in order to provide coverage of the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions.

The BEIS data reveals significant differences in per person emissions by local authority (see Figure 1). Highest emitting areas include the City of London, primarily a business district with a small residential population, followed by Neath Port Talbot and North Lincolnshire, both areas with large steel works.

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions per person (tCO2e) of UK, nations, selected regions and councils in 2020 (Source: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy)

BEIS also provides a version of its statistics that excludes large industrial sites, railways, motorways and land use, designed to indicate what emissions are within local authorities’ influence.

Other highest-emitting areas tend to be rural areas, particularly those which have intensive transport requirements such as island groups (see chart). The lowest-emitting areas tend to be urban, with 14 of the 20 lowest-emitting local authority areas being London boroughs. Land area is clearly a significant factor and the BEIS data includes emissions per square kilometre as well as per person.

Given widely differing local circumstances, local authorities would be well-advised to compare themselves to other areas of a similar nature and look at changes in levels of emissions have changed over time. It is worth recognising that the Covid-19 pandemic means that 2020 was not a typical year, with total emissions down 9% on those for 2019. Global data suggests that emissions rebounded to a more typical level in 2021, with the UK local data due to be published at the end of June 2023.

Some local authorities are already using this data and other sources to show how they plan to reduce emissions and their progress in doing so.

Using local data

Online emissions dashboards

Dundee City Council has set up an online emissions dashboard which uses a system developed by ClimateView. This supplier, based in Sweden, has also established a national emissions-tracking service for the Swedish government, as well as being used by Bristol City Council, Newham Council in London and Nottingham City Council.

Nottingham is using the service to track its progress towards being climate neutral by 2028, although like Edinburgh it acknowledges that it is reliant on central government action to achieve this.

Emissions reporting

Hampshire County Council publishes an annual report on the county’s emissions which draws on the BEIS data.

Harnessing geospatial data

Birmingham City Council has announced funding for digital twin model of the city to help it achieve net zero status, as well as tackle other challenges, with funding from Innovate UK West Midlands Innovation Accelerator.

Calderdale Council will establish a local area energy plan to be delivered by February 2024 that will also include a digital twin of the borough, part-funded by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

Leeds City Council is testing the use of satellite-based thermal imaging to spot houses that are most in need of better insulation.

Doughnut economics

Read about doughnut economics – digital ethics collection

Leeds City Council is taking a broad view of sustainability through use of the Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ model, which in April 2022 saw it launching a ‘Leeds Doughnut’ profile of the city.

Energy

The shift to low-carbon energy production is the most significant element of Britain’s net zero efforts. Some local authorities are taking steps in this area, with two cities – Bristol and Aberdeen – among the most ambitious (see the Bristol and Aberdeen case study below).

Other councils are also working on green hydrogen projects, with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council involved in Hytech NI, a joint project to develop hydrogen production with Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.

Decarbonising electricity production is a relatively uncontroversial way to reduce emissions, given consumers get the same service regardless of what power source is used. However, wind turbines and solar farms can attract significant opposition given their visual impact, requirements for access roads and on-site equipment.

Bristol shows one way to tackle this, which is to provide host communities with benefits such as dividends from ownership, financial support for local projects or cheaper electricity.

Energy4All, a co-operative based in Barrow-in-Furness founded in 2002, supports 33 renewable energy co-operatives across the UK that often provide preferential applications to locals wishing to invest in local renewable generation then set aside some profits for local community use.

Transport

Local authorities can encourage public transport providers, which they typically part-fund, to move to low-carbon fuels such as electricity or green hydrogen. However, the much larger numbers of private road vehicles mean that these provide greater opportunities to decarbonise transport.

The UK government will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel powered cars in 2030, followed by hybrids that use batteries and fossil fuels by 2035.

Charging infrastructure

Lack of charging infrastructure appears to be holding back drivers’ willingness to buy vehicles that rely on their availability (see the Chargers act as brake on electric vehicles case study below). The UK government has set up a range of funds to support local authorities in addressing this shortfall, including funding for on-street residential, workplace and home charging.

In April 2023, North Northamptonshire Council announced that it had won £3.25 million from the government’s local electric vehicle infrastructure fund to help pay for the purchase, installation, planning and delivery of chargers, focused on areas with no or very limited off-street parking.

Derbyshire County Council has asked its residents to register interest in installations of up to 500 charge points using the electricity supply for lamp posts, again in areas with no off-road parking.

Surrey County Council has set up what it believes is the largest on-street electric vehicle charger contract in the UK with Connected Kerb, to provide thousands of charging points over the next five years and operate them for 15 years.

The Energy Saving Trust provides free advice for local authorities in England on decarbonising transport, including increasing electric vehicle adoption, funded by the Department for Transport.

Modal shift

In some areas, local authorities are using new ways to encourage people to shift from cars to public transport for some journeys, such as free buses in cities and on-demand services in rural areas:

  • Transport for Greater Manchester and Manchester City Council run two free-to-use circular bus routes around Manchester city centre, both starting from Piccadilly rail station.
  • In April 2023, Leicester City Council started operation of a free service using electric buses to link rail and bus stations with visitor attractions in an 18-month trial, with funding from the Department for Transport.
  • Many local authorities are attempting to reduce car use through schemes such as low traffic neighbourhoods, low emission zones and congestion charges, which typically rely on technology including automatic numberplate recognition cameras and online payments.
  • Some use climate change as a justification although the programme names suggest local air quality and road congestion are often as important or more so. Cardiff Council, which is exploring options for a road user payment in the city, is primarily doing so because of the health impacts of local air pollution, although climate change and congestion are also factors.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS)

MaaS platforms allow users to plan their journeys based on time and cost preferences, real-time conditions and carbon footprint.

For MaaS platforms to become widespread, technology and data architectures should be agreed upon, harnessing 4G/5G networks and the functionality of smartphones, as well as emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, autonomous vehicles and dynamic routing and demand responsive transport. Local authorities and transport providers should create an open architecture capable of integration with private sector partners and that meets the needs of their residents.

Buildings and land use

The UK has a legacy of old, draughty, poorly insulated homes. Research by the Office for National Statistics has found property age to be the biggest single factor in energy efficiency.

Almost all homes built since 2012 have an Energy Performance Certificate rating of at least C, compared with only 12% of those built in England before 1900.

Age profiles vary by area, with London boroughs making up eight of the 10 areas with the highest proportion of energy efficient homes.

Local authorities have variable levels of ability to reduce emissions from homes and business premises. Local authorities that own social housing can work to make their buildings more efficient. Government funding in England includes the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and Home Upgrade Grant, collectively worth £1.4 billion. For example, in March 2023, West Northamptonshire Council announced it will carry out a ‘whole house retrofit project’ using this source of funding on more than 100 homes it owns in Northampton that were typically built in the 1920s and 1930s, having successfully applied for more than £10 million since 2020.

Some local authorities are providing support and advice for those building and renovating privately-owned homes. West Oxfordshire District Council, Cotswold District Council and Forest of Dean District Council have produced an online toolkit aimed at helping smaller developers, self-builders and renovators to move towards net zero housing with funding from the Local Government Association, produced by a range of technical experts.

Several councils have promoted Solar Together, run by iChoosr, a company that organises discounted group purchasing of solar energy panels and battery storage systems for people living in a geographical area. Recent participants include Kent County Council, its districts and its neighbour Medway Council and a version of the scheme supported by East Sussex County Council.

Other authorities are looking at alternative kinds of land use including forestry, mining and agriculture. Cornwall Council is encouraging further development of renewable power, including investments in geothermal power, and retrofitting social housing by installing solar panels, in common with authorities elsewhere. But it is also planting new woodland across the county and exploring the extraction of lithium, required to produce batteries for electric vehicles, from its geothermal waters. It has also funded pilot work to capture farm-produced methane, a significant source of greenhouse gases, and produce biofuel on six of its council-owned, tenant-run dairy farms, using technology developed by Newquay-based energy company Bennamann.

Conclusion

As this briefing demonstrates, many UK local authorities are undertaking innovative work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their areas in ways that meet local needs. There would be little point in an inner London borough introducing on-demand buses or a car-reliant rural area bringing in road-use charges. Local authorities can also play a significant role in addressing issues of equity in achieving net zero and distribution of its benefits.

Local authorities can learn from their peers in developing plans to reduce emissions, including by drawing on their innovative work, and this briefing aims to contribute to this process. It is also clear that, even if there is some common ground, each area will need to map its own route to net zero. Harnessing technologies and data to target investment effectively, measure performance and meet local needs will all be important considerations for Digital and IT leaders.


Case studies

Case study 1: Bristol and Aberdeen take different routes to low carbon energy

Two city councils at different ends of the UK are taking different approaches to reduce emissions through their ambitious energy-based projects.

Bristol City Council has focused on renewables, having erected two wind turbines at Avonmouth in 2013, making it the first in the UK to do so according to the Local Government Association. An attempt to establish its own energy supply business ended in its liquidation in 2021 but the city has since provided land and funding for a community interest company to build a large wind turbine at Lawrence Weston, with construction starting in February 2023.

In April this year, the city announced Bristol City Leap, a 20-year partnership with Ameresco and Vattenfall Heat UK that plans to expand the city’s use of heat networks (also known as district heating). This will expand on two existing networks which provide warmth to buildings through piped hot water, with plans to cover much of central Bristol by 2027.

Aberdeen City Council is focusing on green hydrogen, hydrogen fuel manufactured using renewable energy that can provide a portable and highly concentrated source of power that can replace fossil fuels. In March 2022 it signed an agreement with BP, a major employer in Aberdeen for half a century. While the company is best-known for oil and gas, it is rapidly developing its efforts in renewable energy. Its joint venture with the city, the Aberdeen Hydrogen Hub, aims to produce green hydrogen to power a fleet of around 50 vehicles from early 2024, using electricity from a solar farm to split water into hydrogen and water.

The council, which has been working to develop hydrogen production for a decade, already uses the fuel to run buses, waste trucks, other vehicles and a live events venue. In March 2023, it said it will invest £18 million in the Aberdeen Hydrogen Hub as part of declaring a climate and nature emergency.

Case study 2: Chargers act as brake on electric vehicles

In April 2023, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders recorded a 15.4% UK market share of new cars for battery-only electric vehicles, up from 10.8% a year previously, with plug-in hybrids accounting for a further 6.5% of the market (5.4% in April 2022). But the trade association said it expected growth in electric-driven models to be constrained by high energy costs and insufficient charging infrastructure.

Local authorities can help to make battery-powered vehicles a more attractive option through supporting more publicly available chargers. The Department for Transport’s most recent data on charging infrastructure, published in May based on data from Zapmap, shows that in April the UK had 40,150 public chargers, up a third on year ago.

The number of chargers per 100,000 people varies widely, even within London. Westminster has 1,071 chargers for each 100,000 residents (2,196 in total) while Bexley in south-east London has just 18 (45 in total).

Outside the capital, Oxfordshire has 82.2 chargers per 100,000 people (597 in total) while Greater Manchester has 21.9 (628 in total). Scotland has 71.5 per 100,000 people (3,919 in total), Wales has 52.8 (1,639 total) and Northern Ireland just 20.4 (389 total).

Case study 3: The rise of mobility as a service

Read more about the rise of mobility as a service on the Deloitte website.

Cities such as Helsinki, Paris, Eindhoven, Gothenburg, Montpellier, Vienna, Hanover, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, Singapore, and Barcelona have all piloted local versions that span the spectrum from modest peer-to-peer (P2P) offerings to integrated public transportation to combined mobility services that include public and private-sector operators.

The arrival of the “information everywhere” world has opened up new opportunities to make the existing transportation network more efficient and user-friendly. The network is becoming much more tailored to precisely what users want, when they want it, and how they want it, through increased consumption choices and convenience.

Martin Ferguson, Socitm

Transport for Edinburgh (TfE) combines a simple, fixed fare structure and mobile ticketing with timely and high-quality information on bus and tram routes and timings through its app and electronic display boards. TfE is leading the delivery of a new Wayfinding system for The City. Future projects include support to the development of the tram network, expanding the cycle hire scheme, the Driver Safety Innovation Challenge and other transport integration and co-ordination projects. TfE’s vision is to provide world-class, integrated, environmentally friendly and socially inclusive transport that will play a central role in the future prosperity of Edinburgh and the Lothians.

Transport for London provides open APIs to its data resources that are used by more than 8,000 developers and over 500 app providers.

Applications of emerging technologies are already being explored in cities such as Edinburgh, Athens and San Francisco, as well as in rural areas such as Suffolk and Norfolk.

Norfolk County Council runs Flexibus, on-demand services centred on four villages with access provided by a webform or telephone. One of the services can be booked through an app available through smartphones and web browsers, with telephone available for those unable to use digital channels.