The Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition* has warned that national regulation on its own is ‘too blunt an instrument’ and has called for stronger local decision-making if the UK is to achieve its ambition of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition’s report, A place-based approach to net-zero, has identified current systemic barriers that need to be overcome if cities are to have a critical role in the national drive for net-zero.
As major centres of production and consumption, a large proportion of the UK’s carbon emissions come from infrastructure that is within the boundaries of cities. Yet local authorities do not currently have the power to directly influence many of these emissions. Cities also feature concentrated and complex infrastructure systems involving multiple stakeholders. Given these complexities, the report calls for a change of approach in order to deliver emissions reductions on the scale required to achieve net-zero.
Clare Wildfire, global practice lead for cities at Mott MacDonald and one of the authors of the report, says: “It’s clear that cities have a critical role to play in support of the national drive for net-zero. Given the importance of local public, private and community buy-in in driving change, city authorities should be well-placed in helping deliver the UK’s targets. Who better to drive forward the changes we need in our cities than those who understand them best?”
The report calls for a greater role for city authorities, and stronger partnerships between cities themselves as well as with central government under a national net-zero framework, which would give cities the power to implement low-carbon interventions where they are best placed to do so, as well as spur private sector interventions The national framework should set the city net-zero purpose, provide devolved powers at combined authority or city level, and provide the funding necessary to stimulate large-scale low-carbon city schemes.
Clare continues: “National regulation on its own is too blunt an instrument to drive net-zero as it does not allow for the many and varied differences at local level. What we are calling for is the right mandate through a national framework that supports local action and that provides devolved net-zero powers as well as catalytic funding where necessary.
“We often talk about the importance of public-private partnerships in meeting the funding needed to achieve our net-zero objectives. Local authorities are far better placed than national government to create attractive local investment conditions given their stronger understanding of the local aspect. For example, suppliers of heat pumps are currently facing barriers related to cost and user familiarity. If a local authority was to enable mass local heat-pump roll-out this would catalyse both cost reduction due to economy of scale and improved trust in the system. It would also encourage uptake of additional low-carbon interventions in the properties at the same time, another route to reducing overall cost.”
The report’s authors encourage local authorities to view their cities as ‘system-of-systems’ to give them greater insight into the complex nature of the city ecosystem and the ways in which a city’s components both positively and negatively interact with each other. With access to the right data, local authorities can develop greater understanding of where decarbonisation requirements interface with other pressing local issues such as health, air quality, and congestion. It will bring them insight on where potential points of failure exist and highlight the best places to instil new resilience and help them steer more effective leveraging of private investment.
Clare comments: “A system-of-systems approach would provide local authorities with really pertinent data on what is happening in their cities, and the multiple knock-on effects of any one change. We know that our cities suffer from poor air quality, for example. But do we know how much of this is down to vehicle tail-pipe emissions? And will a transition to cleaner vehicles significantly improve community health outcomes and how does this compare with the health benefits of prioritising walking and cycling? These are the questions we can answer with a system-of-systems approach.”
A place-based approach to net-zero has been led by Mott MacDonald with support from a working group comprising Leeds City Council and the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC). Using a four-pillar strategy of Powers, Partnerships, Platform and People to accelerate the city contribution to net-zero through a place-based approach will require continued and coordinated collaboration to overcome significant systemic barriers:
• Powers: There needs to be a common and consistent remit for city action and the mandate to facilitate low carbon interventions where cities are best placed to accelerate change. With the right national framework cities are well placed to implement regulation with local knowledge and act as an enabler for locally specific opportunities.
• Partnerships: New forms of partnerships are required, within national and local government and with the private sector, with the common goal of long-term resilience that comes with investment in local and sustainable approaches.
• Data platform: System level data must be used to improve planning, the replicability and transparency of decisions making and to track outcomes such as carbon reduction and health and economic benefits.
• People: must be developed within local authorities to manage these new powers and partnerships, and to act on new data insights.
Clare adds: “Naturally, a political mandate alone would be worthless without the required knowledge, partnerships and data to put it into effect. That is why we are calling for a strengthening of ties between local and national government departments and between the cities themselves, as well as the private and public sectors, which will allow the sharing of the knowhow and the effective mobilisation of investment necessary to meet the challenge we face.”
The full report can be found here.
*The Net-Zero Infrastructure Industry Coalition was formed in 2019 in response to the UK government’s 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions commitment. Coalition members include Mott MacDonald, Skanksa, the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure & Cities, UK Green Buildings Council, Anglian Water, Transport for London, Engie, Pinsent Masons, KPMG, Energy Systems Catapult, Carbon Trust and Leeds City Council.