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Bristol’s net zero carbon emissions deadline is only nine years away. How are we doing?

In November 2018 Bristol became the first UK local authority to declare a climate emergency, committing to reduce its net carbon output to zero by 2030. Since then there has been hot air – much of it well-intentioned – but too little meaningful action, says Jon Turney

Bristol and the Climate Crisis

Jon is a science writer and a director of Zero West, a coalition working for the transition to a zero-carbon society in the West of England area.

Illustration: Marta Zubieta

In November 2018, Bristol City Council told us the city, like the world, faces a climate emergency. The declaration – the first from a UK local authority – went with a commitment to reduce the carbon dioxide our lives generate to net-zero by 2030. 

This means drastically cutting CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions – whether they’re direct (cars, gas boilers, coal power stations) or indirect (importing plastic goods from China, eating beef). What we can’t deal with ought to be offset by carbon absorbers (like trees), or removed some other way. Neither of the latter are likely to be terribly effective, so it’s best to treat the target as zero emissions, no ifs or buts.

Bristol, like the rest of the country, has already cut carbon emissions by an impressive amount, estimated as 33% since 2005. Per-capita emissions have reduced by 45%. But this is mainly because the UK gets more electricity from wind farms and solar installations – easy wins. Net-zero means tackling transport, home heating, agriculture and construction.

A report for the council by Bristol’s own energy think-tank, the Centre for Sustainable Energy, lays out some of what’s needed – investing £5-7bn in new stuff, skills and jobs. That would cover getting rid of 160,000 gas boilers – by installing a massive district heating network (a system for distributing heat from a centralised location via insulated pipes), insulating houses, and installing individual heat pumps for those off the network.

It would also involve increasing solar installations and upgrading the electricity network to use energy more efficiently and cope with increased demand, mainly from heat pumps and car charging points. Public transport would get a big boost, and car miles come down by half. There would be less waste, especially plastic, and better recycling systems. We would be eating differently and, perhaps, using less steel and cement. In short, a zero-carbon pledge is a policy to remake our city.

It’s a tough job – but after more than two years, there should be real progress, right? But anyone who takes a proper look at what’s been done will be disappointed.

Good intentions and fudges

First, some caveats. Our council, like its peers, doesn’t control many policies and regulations that matter, is cash-strapped and is directly responsible for a pretty small fraction of the city’s carbon emissions. A report from the Green Alliance in December 2020 looking at six local authorities’ climate work – including Bristol’s – concluded that “councils [are] unable to bring about the transformation these declarations aspire to” without more expertise, funding and central government backing. Plus, 2020 was the year of the pandemic, so everything was disrupted.

Still, it is the council’s own resolution – if it is to mean anything, the authority must lead. So what have we got to go on? The mayor’s Climate Emergency Action Plan was first cobbled together for July 2019. It’s mainly about assessing the problem, and calls for “new governance structures”. These include an Environmental Sustainability Board as part of the City Office, charged with creating a One City Climate Strategy.

That strategy appeared in February 2020. It sets out plenty of good intentions, with a view to giving everyone who needs to act – not just the council – ideas to work with. The working assumption is that the “pace and scale of change for us to deliver our vision by 2030 requires fundamental and radical changes to the way we work as a city”. But it generally stops short of saying what action is required and, crucially, how it will be monitored.

The plan also fudges politically difficult stuff. Road transport accounts for a third of Bristol’s direct carbon emissions, and rising. The plan calls for vehicle miles to come down by 40% by 2030, and for remaining vehicles to be ultra-low emission – electric cars, basically. Good. And progress has been made on this. But all else is vague. We’re told there need to be “significant improvements” to sustainable travel infrastructure, with better service and accessibility.

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The plan lists ways that could be done, but doesn’t indicate which are likely to happen, or when. On flying, it retreats from specifics and just says total air-travel emissions must be reduced. If Bristol Airport’s expansion plans – rejected by North Somerset council, but pending appeal – go through, that’s fanciful.

Small wonder the city’s Climate Change Advisory Committee (another new body) said bluntly in its first annual report, from November 2020, that the plan needs to define terms, say who should deliver what, and give year-on-year indicators and targets. As things stand, it does none of these things.

Bristol’s great leap?

Here’s one target, though. The council’s big green energy and infrastructure partnership, known as City Leap, is aiming for at least £1bn of investment in transforming the city’s energy system over the next decade. This would come from big projects like the district heating network, upgrading the electricity grid, increasing charging points for electric cars, and delivering renewable energy schemes.

How’s that going? Slowly. The first fanfare about the City Leap Energy Partnership sounded in early 2018 – before the climate emergency resolution. The idea was to link with private-sector energy companies, with the expertise and cash to commit. They would benefit from the council expediting projects in the city, in a combination that would also attract central government money.

Good plan. After meeting hundreds of interested organisations, the council drew up options for City Leap’s structure. But then, having got serious with a smaller set of potential playmates, came a hiccup. The council’s doomed venture, Bristol Energy, had to be sold off in mid-2020. Apparently, no one saw that coming – as recently as April 2020 Bristol Energy was billed as playing a major role in City Leap. So the partner-search began again.

By the end of 2020, realistic partners were down to three. They’re a mix of UK and overseas energy companies and consultancies, though details remain confidential. Great. Maybe work will get under way some time before autumn 2021.

And that target £1bn? All that has happened since City Leap was dreamed up suggests it is far too low. The original plan was tied to a goal of zero carbon by 2050. Relevant documents have been amended to now say 2030, without changing anything else. So the money proposed won’t cover the district heating system – estimated by the Centre for Sustainable Energy at £3bn – let alone anything else.

That’s disappointing, but the council’s own efforts to sum up where we have got to are downright frustrating. It has drawn together its various initiatives into a Climate and Ecological Emergency Programme (taking in the related environmental crisis), detailed in a paper for November’s cabinet meeting. It’s hard to draw much comfort from it though.

The 20 active projects listed look promising. But the details suggest they are mostly still on the drawing board. Top of the list is one where the council has direct influence: the property it owns or operates. Some good things have happened there, especially in new-build council housing developments. But the immediate prospect more broadly is still to “undertake detailed analysis” and, you guessed, “produce a strategic implementation plan”. “Further analysis” or “development of a plan” feature in five of nine items relating directly to the council’s work.

Much of the rest is about contributing to partnerships, building networks and coordinating actions by diverse contributors. It’s stuff that needs to happen to enable citywide change, but it’s hard to see where and when it delivers anything tangible.

As emergency responses go, the past two years’ work falls well short. It’s not just about speed, either – we have some time, though not enough to faff around for years recycling plans that lead nowhere much.

Searching for hope

Along with a recent effort to engage the public with a new website, one hopeful sign has been efforts to rethink Bristol’s transport system in the wake of coronavirus lockdowns. Pop-up cycle lanes, low-traffic “living neighbourhood” schemes and city-centre street closures point in the right direction. But data from the end of 2020 showed that, as Bristol’s car-owners drove more to avoid virally hazardous public transport, air pollution was worse than before the pandemic.

Crucially, we haven’t begun a serious discussion about the scale of changes that will be needed. Positively, local citizens are mostly up for climate action and keen to hear more about what needs to be done, according to a recent survey led by Bristol University’s Cabot Institute. Picking up on that enthusiasm and keeping us all alive to the possibilities must be a priority for the council, and everyone else, in 2021, if we are to deliver on the pledge.

This is part of the Cable’s new series, Bristol and the climate crisis. We want you to join us in our coverage and our response to the climate crisis, helping to shape how we cover Bristol’s role, and what it means for us. What do you want to know about Bristol and climate change? Have your say here and help shape our reporting.

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