Bucking Trends, Punctuating Equilibrium
We’ve recently published the latest release of greenhouse gas emissions data from the Department for Energy and Net Zero Strategy (DENZS, formerly BEIS). This time around, we’ve conducted some new analysis, looking back at the past three available years of data, to assess how emissions figures are trending and to explore what this could mean.
Overall, the picture is concerning. The analysis suggests that only 29% of local areas in the UK will hit zero emissions before 2050 if current reductions trends continue. More worrying still, around a third of the country is reducing emissions so slowly, they won’t have reached zero by 2070,1 and some 17 areas’ emissions have actually increased across the last three reported years.2 Based on these trends, to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 a mind-blowing 11 billion trees would need to be planted to offset the remaining emissions created.3
There are reasons to be hopeful. These are trends, not predictions. Many local areas have robust and innovative net-zero plans in place, with the majority targeting 2030, not 2050 to reach their goal. The ambition to move faster is certainly there and we know from looking back in time, it’s rare for progress to happen in a gradual, linear way. Author and Futerra Co-Founder Solitaire Townsend talks about ‘punctuated equilibrium’, referring to sudden shifts that bring social change:
“These systems don’t shift gradually. Because intense pressure has built up behind them: the change comes swiftly. This is why history is interesting - it's all dramatic changes. Social transformation happening so quickly that life in the previous system becomes unimaginable.”
This dramatic change is precisely what’s needed here. An exponential reduction in the production of harmful warming pollution.
Emissions come from virtually every sector: from farming to housing, transport to industry. Alongside the trends we’ve identified, the local area pages on Carbon Copy also set out the main sources of emissions in each place. Knowing where greenhouse gases are being released can help action to be more targeted and effective. For example, in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon; emissions from agriculture outweigh those from any other sector by far.4 Farming Carbon, an innovative project supporting farmers across Northern Ireland to work regeneratively, is helping to tackle emissions from this sector.
If being targeted is important, so too is working collectively. Of course, those individuals making positive changes in their own lives – driving less, eating locally grown food, turning down the thermostat – are all contributing to reductions, but without a more joined-up approach, progress will continue to be slow.
Hundreds more organisations like Farming Carbon are spearheading amazing projects in communities up and down the country:
- In Nottingham, Victoria Green and Becky Valentine, owners of Spenbeck, are improving sustainability in offices, whilst conserving the beautiful traditional architecture of the buildings. Together, they are helping local businesses reduce emissions, and consider the environmental impacts of the way they work.
- In Liverpool, ambitious teen Khan Odita saw an issue with fly-tipping in a particular area, and worked alongside others from his community to develop a beautiful garden, UrbanScape, in its place.
- Cardiff Cycle Workshop is a not-for-profit organisation helping to get more people cycling in the Welsh capital. In addition to the air quality benefits from fewer cars on the roads, this project also reduces emissions by repairing and recycling old bikes and preventing waste.
- In Belfast, the One Million Trees programme is an ambitious initiative, put forward by Belfast Metropolitan Residents Group and led by the city council alongside a range of partner organisations including the Woodland Trust. The project is looking to plant a million native trees across Belfast by 2035, sequestering carbon, creating natural flood resilience and improving habitats for wildlife.
- Glasgow Community Energy community-owned renewable energy co-operative working to provide access to more green energy by installing solar panels on the roofs of public and private buildings.
- In Bristol, thousands of items are saved from landfill each year with the Bristol Waste Company’s Reuse shops. With shops based at several of the city’s recycling centres, the company rescues and re-sells everything from furniture and electricals, to books, glassware and even paint!
These locally focused examples of people working together to drive change are just a few of over a thousand diverse climate action stories published on Carbon Copy.
Visit your local area page now, to see how greenhouse gas emissions are trending where you live, to learn more about where they come from, and to discover organisations and projects helping to buck these trends in your community.
Data is sourced from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ): UK local authority and regional greenhouse gas emissions, national statistics 2005 to 2021. These statistics, published in July 2023, provide the most reliable and consistent breakdown of end-user greenhouse gas emissions across the country, using nationally available data sets and covering territorial emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Carbon Copy calculated the decrease or increase in these greenhouse gas emissions by end-user within every local authority area over the latest three-year data period from 2018 to 2021 and then extrapolated the trends to estimate the year when end-user emissions would reach zero. Based on these trends, some end-user emissions would only reach zero after 2070 or would never reach zero if end-user emissions have increased from 2018 to 2021. In these cases, the projected estimates were capped at “2070+” since extended timelines have very limited value as a period over which measurable action on climate change should take place at a local level.
- 32% of 380 local councils, if current trends continue, will not reach zero emissions before 2070
- Emissions have increased in Brentwood, Copeland, Gedling, Greenwich, High Peak, Highland, Ipswich, Maldon, Mid and East Antrim, Neath Port Talbot, North Ayrshire, Nottingham, Rutland, Scarborough, Sefton, Selby and Southwark.
- Total greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 across all UK local areas were 32,005.1kt (CO2 e) less than in 2018, indicating an average decrease per year of 10,668.4kt. This means at the current rate of decrease, total emissions will have reduced from 408,172.8kt in 2021, to 109,458.3kt in 2050, just under 4 times the emissions across London in 2021 (29,919.9 x 4 = 119,679.6). Working on an average tree sequestering 10kg CO2 per year for the first 20 years of its life (https://onetreeplanted.org/blogs/stories/how-much-co2-does-tree-absorb), 10,945,830,000 trees, or close to 11 billion, would need to be planted to offset the remainder.
- Agricultural emissions in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon were 863.5kt (CO2 e) in 2021 (the most recent figures available), compared to 319.3 for industry, 18.6 for commercial, 33.8 for public sector, 445.1 for domestic, 504.2 for transport and 88.8 for waste management.