Dr Joe Blakey is a Lecturer in Geography at The University of Manchester. His research focuses on the ways in which carbon accounting shapes politics surrounding decarbonisation. He also works with the Manchester CO2 Monitoring Group to maintain the aviation emissions inventory for flights departing Manchester Airport and tracks progress against the Manchester’s previous 2005-2020 carbon budget.
In simple terms, what is a carbon budget, and why does Manchester need one?
It’s a well-worn analogy, but a carbon budget is a diet plan. The ideas is that you restrict the amount of carbon we consume over a period of time. Limiting the amount of carbon we can emit is a really good idea because continuing to pump carbon in to the atmosphere is a little like having someone pile lots of blankets on you when you are already too hot. The planet is going to get hotter and we cannot simply kick these extra layers of carbon off. The effects of this are already being felt – the planet has already warmed by 1 degree against pre-industrial levels.
Ideally, we need to limit the amount of carbon we can use by as much as possible as soon as we can. The trouble is, carbon emissions underpin pretty much everything we do. So scientists have said that if we really must keep emitting carbon it would be best to limit warming to somewhere around 1.5 degrees (gain pre-industrial levels) to avoid the worst effects and definitely not more than 2 degrees. As such, there is a limited amount of carbon we can pump in to the atmosphere whilst staying within this safer (but still not safe) level of warming. But with a finite amount of carbon who gets to emit what?
Last year Manchester adopted a carbon budget of 15 MtCO2 (‘million tonnes of carbon dioxidet’), which is the amount of carbon that its allowed to use between 2018 and 2100. This is also the amount that the Tyndall Centre think is Manchester’s fair share to stay within 2 degrees of warming without gambling on yet-unrealised technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. Manchester has not presently considered what role it could play in holding global average temperature to 1.5 degrees. We used just over 2 MtCO2 last year so we now have around 13 MtCO2 left for 2019 and onwards. If we keep emissions at this level we will have no budget left by 2025. We need to start cutting our emissions if the budget is going to last us. We’d be foolish to use all of our carbon budget now. That’s why Tyndall have said we should start making pretty substantial cuts – now of around 13.5% – every year.
Everyone seems to be talking about ‘zero-carbon’, ‘net-zero’ or ‘carbon neutral’ lately. Manchester has said it will go zero-carbon by 2038. On the one hand, there’s good reason for this, but I also want to stress that it is not the most important thing to think or debate about and it risks becoming a major distraction. Given that we have such a small budget, it’s pretty obvious that we need to get our emissions down to pretty much nothing as soon as we can and live our lives that way subsequently. That’s where the idea of zero-carbon comes in and why it matters. An earlier target also gives a sense of urgency and facilitates less of a time span to keep emitting at high levels. But what matters even more than the date we go zero is the total (‘cumulative’) amount of emissions that we emit year on year from 2018 to 2100. We have got to stay within that 15 MtCO2 budget. It’s completely possible that we could completely blow this budget by a few million tonnes and then subsequently reduce our emissions to go zero by 2038, 2035, even 2030. Although this would require some pretty steep and unprecedented reductions. On the other hand, we could make our 15 MtCO2 budget last longer by using less now. This is why we should not be too distracted by the zero-carbon target date and should focus instead on how much of the budget we are using up each year.
We can see a similar issue with the Manchester’s previous budget even though we are not too far off track for that. Way back in 2009, the city’s climate change action plan Manchester: a Certain Future said that by the year 2020 emissions will be 41% of what they were in 2005 and this will probably be the case. This is all well and good if emission decrease in a straight line, but that’s not what happened. This is why in 2015, the CO2 group translated this end-year target in to a cumulative carbon budget of 41.7 MtCO2, counting all of the emissions released 2005-2020. As we struggled in the first few years it looks like we are going to slightly exceed this. If we decarbonise at the same rate across 19/20 and estimates for previous year do not change too much, we are probably going to use around 0.5 MtCO2 extra than budgeted. This would be a relatively small overshoot, but it is still an overshoot. My broader point here is that the 41% end-year target (much like the zero-carbon target date) is not the important thing to focus on as it is not the whole story. That’s like saying you are sticking to your diet on the basis of your actions today, but ignoring yesterday’s indulgence. The same is true for zero-carbon, we absolutely need to get there but what matters more is how much we emit between now and then – regardless of when ‘then’ may be.
In sum, the weight of our footprint is tipping the scales to ‘dangerous’. We are risking the planet’s health more than ever and its serious time we all got ourselves in to shape. To do so, we need to budget carbon and we need to stick to this budget. When we go ‘zero’ matters, but the more important thing is the amount of carbon we use in the meantime. We had 41.7 MtCO2 to last us 15 years (2005-2020) which will probably exceed, we have now got just 13 MtCO2* to last us 81 years (2019-2100). We really need to spend it wisely.
*Deducting emissions in 2018 that are already locked in.
What does the current budget include and what does it NOT include?
This is where it gets a bit complicated. But that’s okay, because our carbon footprints are complicated things! I’d argue we need to complicate simplistic understandings that do not grasp the complex role cities play in emissions all across the planet. So the more people that understand this the better. There’s a few things we can think about under two main categories: the first is about what share of the global emissions budget we get, the second is about what emissions we count as belonging to Manchester.
A really radical perspective would be to say that because the UK has used so much carbon historically to its gain – and often to the disadvantage of other nations – that the UK (and its cities) should not have an equal share to everyone else. However, we have emitted so much historic carbon that there would already be no budget left! This idea, historical emissions responsibility, is usually ignored, therefore. But if we can use less that 15 MtCO2 2018-2100 then that means nations, cities and people who have emitted less historically have that little bit more wiggle room in their own budgets or that global emissions are further limited, which is a good thing as that might go some way to limiting temperatures closer to 1.5 degrees.
Now, it’s also important to think about what emissions we count and assign to Manchester each year. As a Geographer, I’m keen to point out that different spaces, cities, regions – even nations – cannot be neatly parcelled off, despite carbon accountants’ best efforts! Manchester has people, goods and money flow into, out of and through it every single day. Imagine a cup of Kenyan coffee consumed in an American coffee chain in Manchester city centre by a visitor from Liverpool. There are a whole host of emissions that can be associated with this cup of coffee – but who gets the blame?
It’s interesting to compare this thought experiment to what we presently account. Picture a map of Manchester in your mind and draw a line around the political boundary. The carbon that is emitted within that line is what is counted – we call this ‘scope 1’ or direct emissions. We also count the emissions that are consequent of the electricity consumed within it, regardless of where it is generated. We call this ‘scope 2’ emissions. Combine the number of tonnes of carbon for scope 1 and scope 2 and you pretty much have the footprint of Manchester as we presently count it. So to return to the coffee analogy, we might count the emissions from the electricity that enables the grinding the beans, the preparing of the cup of coffee and heating the building, but none of the emissions that accompany the transport of the bean.
So you’re beginning to see that there are other ways that we can count our footprint. We can count the emissions that go in to producing and transporting the coffee – along the rest of the goods and services – that we consume in the city regardless of where they are emitted. This is a consumption-based or ‘scope 3’ footprint and it shows a different perspective on our carbon footprint. Equally, if something is produced in Manchester but is consumed elsewhere these emissions would not be counted under this approach. It’s a little harder to count these emissions but it’s important we have a rough idea of them and reduce them. The C40 reckon that cities footprints are around 60% larger under a consumption-based perspective. This makes sense as we’re primarily a service sector economy, much of our food and goods come from elsewhere. Similarly, I’d argue you might also count emissions consequent from investments made from Manchester. These are known as downstream-enabled emissions or income-based emissions. There’s not much research on this, but cities like Manchester and London would clearly have quite large footprints from this perspective.
Then there’s everyone’s favourite elephant in the room – aviation. Technically speaking, aviation would be included in a consumption-based inventory but it is worth mentioning separately given its significance. Everyone says that aviation is not including in the city’s zero-carbon budget, but in a way it is. It has been relegated to the background and it is not included in the total yearly figures for the city. Let me explain. The airport is within the city’s boundary, the city council own a 35.5% share of Manchester Airports Group (which also owns London Stansted and East Midlands airports), I’m told it has a massive effect on our local economy, whilst simultaneously flights serve the wider region, the economies of flight destinations and tourists from elsewhere. It is a messy, messy thing to say what responsibility the city should take for these flights. Most people will argue that quite intuitively we should only take responsibility for the emissions of flights taken by citizens of Manchester, but this is only somewhere in the region of around 4.5% of flights from Manchester Airport. A stark difference from our 35.5% ownership! I think this would be selling our capacity to intervene short. Though of course, it’s important to note that Manchester citizens take flights from elsewhere too.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. In order to set the city’s zero-carbon budget and to keep it in line with a probable chance of keeping within 2 degrees, the folks at Tyndall had to make certain assumptions about what happens to aviation (and shipping too). The assumption is, that for UK aviation as a whole, emissions should hold steady from 2018 until 2030 and then decrease linearly (in a straight line) until 2075. This is a huge amount of headroom for aviation – a budget of 1,262 MtCO2. That’s about the same as 84 Manchesters. The emissions profiles of all airports and indeed Manchester citizens needs to do the same. I really want to stress this point, the council have signed up to the budget of 15 MtCO2 for the city and that budget only holds if these assumptions about aviation are realised. So my solution here is to suggest that we start monitoring aviation emissions separately – and that’s what I’ve been doing working with colleagues in the Manchester CO2 Monitoring Group. Emissions from flights departing Manchester Airport were around 3.6 MtCO2 last year, so we know we need to hold it at or below this level until 2030 before expecting some pretty deep cuts. This works out as a carbon budget of about 125 MtCO2 for all flights leaving the airport between 2018 and 2075. This is the equivalent to Manchester’s budget around 8 times over, but again, this isn’t a simple comparison as the airport serves other cities. But the point is there are lots of roles the city can play and we need to keep them all on the table.
So as you can see – there’s not one ‘correct’ way of counting a carbon footprint – be that the footprint of the city or the airport. ‘Science’ does not have an answer for this. This is a political question and, I’d argue historically this has probably been a bit of a pragmatic question too in terms of what is manageable to measure. If you like, these perspectives all correspond to different levers we can pull in reducing our carbon footprint. But as far as I can tell, most of our efforts have gone into pulling the lever that corresponds to our scope 1 and 2 emissions. It strikes me that in a climate emergency you grasp every lever you can and pull them with as much might as you can muster. I’m not saying that there isn’t any action in these areas, there’s lots of good work. But we need a better sense of how our action in these other domains stacks up against what is necessary to mitigate planetary emissions and that’s hard to judge. Though I’d argue that our relative inaction in these other areas is nonetheless quite tangible. I look around and I see the new buildings going up, with heaps of consumption-based emissions, I see new burger restaurants, I see plans for airport expansions, I see a thriving financial-services sector and wonder where the money is being invested, I see the protests outside the Greater Manchester Pension Fund HQ in my hometown of Droylsden. We clearly need a tighter rein on what’s happening here. If we’re not doing very well with our scope 1 and 2 budget we should be trying much harder to pull these other levers of change too. I’d argue we have a moral imperative to.
One final thing I’d mention here is that it’s important to think about zero-carbon in the context of these other levers of decarbonisation. Imagine if we carried on measuring, monitoring and ‘managing’ our emissions as we do and that, incredibly, we managed to go zero-carbon yet at the same time China’s emissions were still high. Would this be their fault when we’re still investing over there and consuming the goods they produce? This is why the term makes me gravely uncomfortable – it risks ‘greenwashing’. I’d argue we’d be better off talking about zero-carbon energy for this reason over the catch all of ‘zero-carbon cities’.
How are we doing in meeting our current budget?
Not very well! In the latest annual report Dr Jaise Kuriakose of the Tyndall Centre noted that we reduced our scope 1 and 2 budget by 2.5% against the 13% we are aiming for. This is why we now have to aim to reduce emissions by 13.5% year on year. I think it’s important to keep the order of magnitude in mind here. We need to make cuts that are over 5 times greater. This will probably be even more than 5 times harder as we tend to do the easy stuff first. Emissions from flights departing Manchester Airport actually stayed pretty level between 2017 and 2018, so who knows, we might actually be within a chance of keeping these emissions steady until 2030 yet.
Given that, does it make any sense to push for a steeper target?
A difficult question. At some point we have got to question what role these targets are serving and whether they are effective. We’re clearly way off our present target which – as it’s aimed keeping us within 2 degrees warming – is arguably the minimum role we can play. Action just isn’t aligning with the targets and that needs to change first and foremost. But it would be wonderful if we could just use 10 MtCO2 2018-2100 or less, though given the present lack of progress this is highly unlikely. It would be pointless revising the target if it is just going to be ignored, so I’d argue that effort might be better spent making the city more accountable and more reactive to its present carbon budget. We need year-on-year emissions reductions to be as deep and as radical as possible and we should do everything we can. The previous carbon budget was about having slightly smaller portions of carbon. The 2018-2100 budget now needs to be full-on carbon rationing. We need to treat this emergency as an emergency.
It’s also interesting you mention a steeper target. Our emissions reductions will de facto have to be steeper to stay in budget if we keep up our current level of inaction. We’ve literally just seen that this year, because we’ve not made the cuts of 13% required we need to make 13.5% year on year reductions. We probably won’t make the target this year and the target will be steeper again next year. The longer we delay the steeper – and therefore less feasible – this reduction gets.
This means making some uncomfortable choices right now, sacrificing at least some short-term economic benefits where we can without compromising the wellbeing of your everyday citizen if we’re really serious about our reductions. If we get our reductions up to scratch and we can realise we can make even deeper cuts then let’s go for it, but presently this appear a pipe dream. I would also argue that we should be pulling some of those other levers too and pressing for action on them, especially if we’re failing on the usual front, which I guess leads me on to your next question…
e. What sorts of things would we have to start doing that we aren’t doing, that we aren’t even TALKING about to get to a better target.
I’m going to deliver my answer to this one as a list. I’ll take the target as meaning ‘avoiding dangerous levels of warming’ – which is surely the best target!:
- 2018-2038 is a long period and we’re already way off track. I think we need more short term focus as part of this and that Manchester should be held to account over shorter sub-budgets. We especially need action in the near term.
- I understand the want to increase ambition in Manchester. However, instead of pressing for an earlier zero-carbon date, pressing for a smaller cumulative emissions budget would be more effective in limiting dangerous warming (but the likelihood of this translating in to action given current levels of inaction is perhaps questionable).
- We should think about the ways we can repay historically low-emitting nations in other ways if we can no longer make good on our historical emissions debt.
- We should stop talking about our scope 1 and 2 footprint as ‘our carbon footprint’. Simply put, it isn’t. It’s one perspective on what our carbon footprint is and as I discussed above there are other levers we can pull. This general assumption depoliticises other perspectives on how we can act.
- Closely related to this, we need to make other levers of decarbonisation visible – divestment, consumption-based emissions, aviation, transport beyond the city boundary and so forth. These need to be made visible, we need to understand their role in decarbonisation and we need to act on them.
- We should talk more specifically about what the current zero-carbon ambition actually refers to, which is mostly to do with how we heat and fuel the city, it should not be a city branding exercise. We are currently nowhere near zero-carbon and if we did become ‘zero-carbon’ we would probably still be responsible for other carbon emissions.
- I think we need to stop focusing on decarbonisation as solely a collective pursuit. It is, sure, and this helps to bring people together which is good. But we talk so often about decarbonisation being a common responsibility we forget that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change enshrined the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. In other words, there’s a whole politics to how we divide up responsibility for action that science does not have the answer to and that we should debate more in deciding what nation, what business, what person does what. For instance, I would argue that the people who profit most have a greater capacity to act. The world’s richest 10% are responsible for almost half of consumption-based emissions. Sure, turning the lights off here and there will help, but not to the same extent as if the top 10% stop leading carbon-intensive lifestyles. We all have a part to play but some have an ability – or an ought – to play a much bigger part! If you earn more than about £53,000 before tax you’re in the top 10% of earners in the UK, but in reality this threshold is much lower given inequalities between the average UK wage and the rest of the world. There’s more people in this category than you might initially think.
- Finally, targets are a promise for tomorrow that may go unfulfilled. We need action that corresponds to targets too.
What would an open and transparent process to discuss changing the target involve, in your opinion? Who would do what when to make that process open and transparent.
The way in which the climate has been governed in this city over the past decade might be called governance beyond the state. In other words, a group of stakeholders comes together to represent the city, decides what we ought to do and makes recommendations to the City Council. As part of this, expert advice from the Universities – and in particular the Tyndall Centre – plays a key role.
Getting the right people together to decide on the fate of their lives is clearly a good idea, but the idea of a stakeholder is actually really complicated. Who ultimately is a stakeholder? Is it people who have knowledge about climate change, is it someone who will be affected by the decisions, is it someone that just lives in the place? Might we argue that communities subject to drought are also stakeholders? What about species under the threat of extinction that cannot speak for themselves? There’s so many ways of cutting the cake of who is a stakeholder. Even when you have ‘stakeholders’ in a room they’re not all going to agree on absolutely everything but decisions nonetheless have to get made. As much as we might try to include people – and we should absolutely try – there will always be voices that go unheard. In short, there’s not one way that we can best govern the city’s climate change policy so I have no perfect answer for you here. This is why there will always be a place for activism to make the unheard heard and the better governance arrangement is surely the one that is receptive to that.
So that’s why I’m not going to offer an all-singing all-dancing vision of a ‘process’ as my suggestion would be imperfect too. But acknowledging the limitations of the stakeholder process can surely push us in a helpful direction. I feel this should be the central principal of how proceed and this should mean three things: that the city is open to suggestions of how better to do things, that citizens hold the process to account and that, despite these difficulties, we still give it a really good shot at being inclusive. But this of course – as you mention – requires transparency on all levels, be this in providing minutes, holding public meetings or providing a diversity of data. Science can help to this end by showing us multiple perspective on our carbon footprint and reduction targets. This at least it creates a broader space of debate about what levers we should be pulling, to what extent and when that is not confined to meeting rooms.