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Professor Tim Dixon
Professorial Chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment, University of Reading
Professor Tim Dixon

Low carbon plans for UK cities: Where next?

Authors: Professor Tim Dixon Professor Tim Dixon, University of Reading

24 July 2012

The battle against climate change and resource depletion will be won or lost in the world’s cities. Cities present us with huge environmental challenges, but also offer big opportunities, because they create economies of scale in technology deployment, access to capital, and opportunities for green growth jobs, all of which are vital if we are to make the existing built environment of our cities sustainable and resource efficient by 2050.

The Top 20 cities in the UK, for example, are responsible for more than 20% of national carbon emissions, and more than 20% of energy consumption, so local action by cities will be vital if we are to meet the UK national target of 80% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050.

Recent research for RICS shows that in the UK more densely populated cities are more carbon and energy efficient, in per capita terms, than less densely populated cities. Increased wealth is also associated with more emissions (in per capita terms), and cities that create more waste also tend to create more carbon emissions.

However, driven by a need to reduce energy costs, and green jobs/economic growth, and the increasing issue of fuel poverty, UK cities are putting low carbon plans into action, and having these in place to reduce carbon emissions can make a significant difference to the amount of overall reduction in emissions over time.

A key issue though is how we define ‘low carbon’ in a city context. The Work Foundation’s recent report on Low Carbon Jobs, which builds on earlier work, is based on a definition of a low carbon economy as one which uses fossil fuels efficiently; reduces carbon emissions; and underpins the transition to a low carbon future. But at a city level so-called low carbon cities may in fact be high carbon because we haven’t yet agreed a consistent set of indicators nationally or internationally. An interesting alternative definition by ASSAF is that a low carbon city ‘…strives to reduce its GHG emissions and increase its carbon sinks, while simultaneously adapting to anticipated climate change impacts’.

Getting a coherent definition and national framework in place at city level is even more important as city councils in the UK face particular pressures as cuts start to bite and in England, the new localism and NPPF agendas gather steam. For many cities an agenda built around retrofitting is also becoming important (see But in the wake of government cuts and Treasury scepticism of the green agenda, funding issues are seen as a key barrier not only in terms of capital projects or improvement grants, but also in terms of the provision of resources for local authority teams operating in the low carbon and climate change arena.

Looking at the UK and internationally (see China’s Low Carbon City Initiative, for example), the cities that are succeeding with their low carbon plans are those that set ambitious targets; place them in an integrated low carbon and climate change framework; have innovative financing in place; and use partnerships creatively.

In short, as the RICS research and recent work by Committee on Climate Change shows, UK cities need a coherent low carbon framework which recognises and resolves funding constraints and puts mandatory low carbon plans in place.


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