Are We On Track For Net Zero Carbon?

When Wokingham Borough Council declared a climate emergency back in July 2019, one of the requirements was for a cross party working group to steer the direction of action.  Like most people I speak with, I hate the thought of the climate agenda being used as a political football and want to see all parties coming together to help address the challenges.  Having had a positive experience with the WBC arts & culture working group, where different parties work together for the greater good, along with external partner organisations and individuals, I was delighted in the summer of 2019 to be invited to sit on the climate emergency working group. 

Sadly, my experience has been quite different.  The Climate Emergency working group has been excluded from the development of the action plan, and our attempts to demonstrate how we could help have fallen on deaf ears. 

As such, my role has become one of scrutiny of the plan rather than contributing to its development.  Like many of you, I am thrilled that the council declared a climate emergency, but I am fully aware that this is an incredibly ambitious goal, and scrutiny of the action plan to ensure it can achieve its goal is paramount.  I am not claiming to have all the answers.  In fact, no one can.  Tackling this threat to our planet requires collaboration and sharing of knowledge, expertise and ideas from a wide range of organisations and people, and part of the journey means that we need to be open to scrutiny and challenge to ensure these plans are robust.  We cannot afford to get this wrong. 

Working with a couple of colleagues, we have been through the published action plan[1] to see how it all adds up.  We know that this is a working document, and it is going to adapt and evolve over time.  We do need to challenge though any anomalies at every stage or we run the risk of going too far down the wrong path and miss other opportunities. 

Our Analysis

Addressing the climate emergency is first and foremost about reducing the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere.  The currency of this is Kilotonnes (KT), which is thousands of tonnes of CO2 or equivalent.  The stated aim of Wokingham’s plan is to reach “net-zero”, the point at which we are removing as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we are emitting into it.  Wokingham’s aim is to achieve this by 2030.

The climate emergency action plan (CEAP) starts from a baseline of CO2 emissions for Wokingham Borough in 2017 of 580.9 KT[2].  The intention is to reduce this figure to net-zero by 2030, mostly through measures to reduce CO2 emissions with some measures to increase removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. 

A large proportion of the CO2 reduction will happen as a result of national initiatives.  Wokingham’s CEAP is responsible for reducing to net-zero the remainder.  Upon analysing this information, we have significant concerns about:

  • The assumptions made for the benefit from national initiatives
  • Overlap between national and local initiatives
  • The legitimacy of some initiatives in the local plan

We believe that the current plan may only achieve around 50% of the goal and that the community is being misled by the Council to believe that the plan is sufficient.

The Contribution of National Initiatives to the Wokingham Plan

The CEAP makes a sweeping assumption that the 5.6% rate of CO2 emission reduction from national initiatives achieved between 2012 and 2017 will continue through to 2030.  This would more than halve emissions.  However, the latest government (BEIS) forecast for national emissions by 2030 is a reduction of less than half of the assumption in the Wokingham plan.  This is the same BEIS that WBC is using as the data source for the current emissions profile of the borough.  Our concern is reinforced by the most recently released data which shows the actual reduction between 2017 and 2018 for Wokingham was only 1.4%, one quarter of what was assumed would happen.

The difference between the CEAP assumption and the BEIS forecast is a further 176kT of CO2 which will need to be removed and is not catered for in the plan. 

The original CEAP (Jan 2020) recognised this issue and that “it is anticipated that the current ‘business as usual’ approach emissions will eventually plateau at a much higher level well before this as most of the ‘quick wins’ will have already been achieved.”  However, in the more recent CEAP (July 2020) this caveat is missing. 

We calculate that this disparity in assumptions on national initiatives will result in approximately 30% of Wokingham’s actual target reduction in emissions being not achieved.

Overlap between National and Local Initiatives

There is little evidence of analysis of the measures behind the national reduction, and we think it is highly likely that there is duplication between national initiatives and local initiatives.  For example:

  • There are substantial reductions assumed both nationally and locally as a result of a shift to electric vehicles. It is impossible to determine the extent to which measures and assumed reductions in CO2 are double counted. 
  • Some of the forecast national reduction will be dependent on local actions.  For example, in order to achieve the government’s ambition of banning the sale of ICE cars by 2030, the necessary infrastructure will need to be in place to support this, which requires involvement from WBC.  This crucial point is not taken into consideration anywhere within the CEAP.

We calculate that 11% of the actual target reduction in emissions falls into this category and needs further analysis to verify its status.

Wokingham’s Local Initiatives

We believe there may be significant double counting between individual measures.  For example, 3 measures each claiming significant reductions in emissions from transport without clarity on the overall between these:

  • A 20% reduction in total distance travelled in private vehicles per individual per year
  • The use of all cars, vans and motorbikes as a mode of transport decreases from 74% (current national/borough average) total miles to 56%
  • 50% of new vehicle registrations by 2030 being electric vehicles

The plan includes a number of initiatives which are being justified in the name of the climate emergency, despite having no apparent, or at best a questionable, link to CO2 emissions.  The most significant of these is the £17M investment in managing road congestion which is claimed as CEAP investment, but no CO2 emission reduction is forecast.  Air quality initiatives are another example.

We have a significant concern over how renewable power generation is treated in the plan. 

  • The generally accepted definition of “Net Zero” is that the amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere (for example by adsorption by trees) equals the amount of CO2 being emitted.  The CEAP includes the generation of solar power and claims that this will reduce Wokingham’s CO2 emissions by 28KT. 
  • Renewable energy projects are an essential part of addressing climate change globally and we welcome this happening in Wokingham.  However, in terms of the CEAP this project must be viewed dispassionately in terms of its impact on CO2 emissions.  The power generated by this project will feed into the national grid as a part of the overall national generation capacity.  It will accelerate the decarbonisation of the national grid but the contribution to the CO2 footprint of electricity consumed in Wokingham is tiny.  No CO2 is removed from the atmosphere in Wokingham, and it cannot be correct to calculate this as an offset against other emissions.[3] 
  • Even if an argument is put forward for the inclusion of this in the CEAP, the assumed benefit will in time reduce as the national generation capability is decarbonised.  The current calculation appears to be based on a legacy value for the carbon cost of generation.

We calculate that this 4% of the actual target reduction in emissions is incorrectly claimed by this measure.  However, this error has been compounded in the July 2020 update to the plan where the benefit of solar farms and other renewable generation appears to have been taken twice.  We think that this, together with measures where the assumptions or plan behind the CO2 reductions are unclear is a further total overstatement by 14% of the actual target reduction in emissions.[4]

Summary

We have analysed the national and local initiatives and assumptions in the CEAP in terms of their likely contribution to achieving the net zero target.  This is summarised in the chart below. 

Conclusion

We conclude that there are multiple issues in the CEAP which, if not addressed, will result in Wokingham missing its net zero 2030 target by a huge margin.  We accept that the CEAP is a working document and expect to see changes in it over time.   We are not claiming to have all the answers to this problem, but we believe that it is essential that the true scale of the challenge is made clear to residents and that a plan for net-zero is based on sound and realistic assumptions.

We would like to see the focus of our efforts and investment being on carbon reduction initiatives, rather than off-setting which doesn’t tackle the problem.  The climate emergency needs to be tackled collaboratively not just within the council, but externally with partner organisations, businesses, the third sector and the public coming together.  And it must be done on a transparent basis. 


[1] https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings/open-data/climate-emergency/

[2] This excludes consumption CO2 (from the production of goods consumed) and emissions from national rail and motorways within the Borough.

[3] The July 2020 CEAP states that “Installation of a large scale solar farm on council owned land will allow the council to offset its carbon emissions from electricity and gas usage.”

[4] The July 2020 CEAP states “When all the actions in the plan have been implemented, the Borough will still fall short of its carbon zero target by 2030 by 72.67 ktCO2e. This figure has been balanced by accounting for renewable energy generation estimate of -52.8 ktCO2e and the increase of carbon sequestration estimated to be -4.5 ktCO2e.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.