The race to net zero cities

Political pressures for global cities to achieve net zero emission status are intense and rapidly expanding. Cities around the world are racing to demonstrate clear commitments to policies and actions for improving air quality, slashing emissions and improving sustainability, with a profound impact on the organisations that operate within them. Local authorities across the UK are increasingly finding themselves obliged to follow suit, committing to stringent carbon reduction targets and navigating the complex infrastructure changes it requires.

Meeting net zero targets requires seismic change across all aspects of life and business, but that shows no sign of slowing a rapidly evolving race between the UK’s cities to showcase their leading green credentials.

For cities and the organisations that work within them, failing to set clear targets and take decisive, quantified action is simply not an option if they value their public perception.

Net zero drivers

Setting aside the pressing environmental case for achieving net zero, there are compelling financial and health reasons for cities to work hard at achieving these ambitious targets. A report from the Coalition of Urban Transitions, supported by more than 50 organisations worldwide, estimated global economic benefits pegged at £24 trillion by 2050 for urban areas to achieve net zero or near-zero emissions. Alongside that, it forecast a net reduction in urban emissions of 90%, as well as supporting 87 million jobs annually by 2030 and dramatic improvements in air quality and traffic levels.

Despite the scale of these benefits, for many key audiences, particularly the general public, they remain a distant second priority to the need to combat climate change. With so many of their neighbours driving forward with progressive carbon reduction strategies, local authorities in the UK failing to do so risk both alienating the people that live and work there, as well as attracting the increasingly intense scrutiny of climate activists and campaigners.

It has already had a marked impact. Since Bristol City Council became the first to declare a ‘climate emergency’ in November 2018, more than half of local authorities have followed suit. This includes 20 of the 36 existing metropolitan councils, alongside two-thirds of London boroughs. While this covers a wide mix of areas, much of the onus falls on cities to use their resources and available expertise to do much of the heavy lifting.

How are UK cities performing?

UK cities, particularly those with devolved administration, are broadly performing well when benchmarked against global standards. Quite who is leading the race varies depending on the criteria, as several frontrunners have emerged that have focused on different areas.

Glasgow has made significant strides in terms of achieving their net zero targets. Alongside an extensive scheme to upgrade electric vehicle charging infrastructure, Glasgow has partnered with ScottishPower to deliver major reductions in emissions linked to transport and heating as well as increasing the city’s use of renewable energy.

Birmingham has an ambitious short-term target of a 60% cut in emissions by 2027. To do so, they have rolled out elaborate district energy schemes built around Combined Heat and Power, generating heat at New Street station before selling the excess to third parties including John Lewis and the National Indoor Arena.

Nottingham currently aims to be the first UK city to reach carbon neutrality, in just 2028. To do so, they have invested heavily in renewable energy, retrofitted electric and biogas transport and introduced a workplace parking levy.

With major health concerns associated with poor air quality alongside the urgent need to address emissions, one of the most common starting points of cities setting out net-zero targets is to establish emissions charging zones or restricting access to the most polluting categories of vehicle. London became the first city to do so with the introduction of the Ultra Low Emissions Zone in April 2019, thereby becoming the first city worldwide to introduce a 24-hour, seven days a week emissions zone. Glasgow and York have introduced similar restrictions, while Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, Bath and Edinburgh have confirmed plans to do the same.

Once introduced, emissions charging zones could have a significant impact on businesses and other organisations that operate within the city centre, particularly those that are slow to adapt their fleets and working practices to accommodate the change. Failing to ensure vehicle fleets are modernised and low-emission could result in significant additional costs or disruption to their ability to access inner-city sites.

Impact on business

As cities commit to increasingly ambitious net zero targets, there is an increased expectation for businesses and other organisations that operate within them to play a part in achieving them. Fortunately, many of these measures fall neatly alongside the sustainability and net zero planning that should already be being put into place.

Taking London as an example, leading businesses responsible for employing 165,000 staff in the capital have committed to migrating their London fleets to zero emissions vehicles, sourcing 100% of energy from renewable sources for London-based properties and reducing waste by 50%. Each of these steps will be measured alongside energy efficiency targets set for 2020, 2030 and 2050. As legislation such as SECR grows these goals and ambitions become balanced with public reporting of individual company’s carbon footprints and emissions.

Ensuring your organisation is already embarking on your own sustainability journey through careful awareness, evaluation and planning minimises the disruption new measure measures could cause, both in terms of material impact and timings of new initiatives. It also increasingly opens up new opportunities for cost savings and business improvement in our collective drive towards net zero.