Bigger Cuts for Manchester – in its Annual Greenhouse Gas Emissions

August 3, 2020

Manchester now needs to make bigger cuts to its annual greenhouse gas emissions: A commentary on Manchester Climate Change Agency’s Annual Report

A brief Annual Report for 2020 has been issued by Manchester Climate Change Agency. It is not a long report so we encourage you to read it. However, we make the following comments.

A little background

The report is from the Manchester Climate Change Partnership. This is the arms length agency set up, but woefully under-resourced, by Manchester City Council. In principle that distance does give some scope for taking an independent line from the council, but the Partnership also has to keep the council “on-side”. For that reason independent critical voices are vital.

The introduction to the report refers to a letter the Partnership sent to the council. It makes the point that the Covid-19 pandemic gives us the

“… opportunity to reimagine the world we live in; the opportunity for citizens’ quality of life, health and wellbeing to become the overriding aim of politicians, business and community leaders; the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the global economy so it acts in the interests of people, planet and profits, and; the opportunity to ensure we can get on track to meet the 1.5-2°C aim of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”

We agree. However, the council’s failure to seize the opportunity to put into place emergency and experimental mobility lanes for cyclists and other non-motorised road users, except within the city centre, would seem to indicate a reluctance to really seize the opportunity referred to. We will return to consider why actions are not meeting the scale of the climate challenge below.

The Partnership makes a number of specific suggestions in its letter, and identifies all the right areas. It is, however, questionable whether these largely unquantified proposals amount to the scale of change needed.

Turning now to the report itself, we have the following comments.

Action! Engage, Influence and Support Manchester Residents and Organisations to Take Action Urgently.

There has been some success in engaging other organisations in making the changes required to reduce the city’s emissions to zero by 2038. A number of organisations, accounting for 20% of the city’s direct emissions, have partnered with the Partnership and submitted outline plans. However, on digging into these plans, and where available the more detailed planning by these organisations, we cannot be confident that sufficient robust, quantified action plans are in place to make the cuts needed.

The Partnership has work that is not yet completed to bring in further organisations. What is missing is an overall picture of where the cuts to emissions are to be made and by whom.

The Partnership mentions a failed bid “to develop a new programme to support residents and communities to take action on climate change”. This programme was something we recommended in our commentary on the Partnership’s current strategy when it was in draft. The failure to obtain funding for this vital work is symptomatic of the pitiful level of funding that the Partnership enjoys. The Manchester Climate Change Agency, the office which supports the Partnership’s work, has just three members of staff. There is energy and enthusiasm from a number of local communities, sadly organised on the basis of city council wards, rather than the real communities and neighbourhoods: a start was made in some places but this has been largely put into abeyance by the pandemic and lock-down. Funding bids have been made locally and we are optimistic that some success will be announced soon. But without proper funding for an infrastructure to engage communities across the city (and the region), climate action will continue to be marginalised.

Operations and Governance

Further down the report we see that,

“The Agency’s Board of Directors have agreed a development plan for 2020-21. The plan is to expand the Agency from three members of staff to 13, subject to funding.”

The council could make a start by seconding more staff to the agency, as could a number of those partner organisations mentioned above: if there were a climate emergency, then this is just what we should expect to happen. It would involve the re-designation of functions: even with the cuts of the last 10 years, the council is big enough to easily do this to the tune of three or four posts. The universities could be particularly imaginative and establish a joint action research and policy team.

Staying within our carbon budgets

This is the core of the report. Things are not going too well. We learn that,

Based on the data for 2018 and projected emissions for 2019, 26% of Manchester’s remaining carbon budget for 2018 to 2100 has been used in the initial two-year period (2018 and 2019). The distribution of the carbon budget can be in a variety of ways, however slower reduction rates must be compensated for by faster reduction rates in the future to keep within the budget.

Put another way,

“The emissions estimated for 2018 and 2019, the first two years of the carbon budget period, show Manchester is not yet following the recommended pathway meaning the carbon budget is being used at a faster rate. Emissions fell in these years by 2% and 4% respectively. This is against the 13% year-on-year reduction in emissions that are set out in the [city’s] Climate Change Framework.”

This increases the rate at which emissions must fall in the remaining years from 13% to 14.8%, close to the 15% figure that Greater Manchester has to achieve, although that will also have to be increased now. It was always known that two contradictory realities are in play here. Firstly, it was going to be harder to make the cuts in the early years, since it requires a wholesale reorganisation of the way we do things. Secondly, there is time to catch up, but that catching up gets harder the longer radical action is delayed. Because of the first reality, the Tyndall Centre broke down the budget into 5 year blocks. Manchester has used up 58% of its first five year sub-budget in two years. This is what the city’s carbon budget now looks like year on year.

Manchester 2 deg budget 15000 ktCO2
Year Actual and adjusted required: annual Actual and adjusted required: cumulative Remaining budget at end of year Reduction achieved / required
2018 2,256 2,256 12,744 2.00%
2019 2,166 4,422 10,578 4.00%
2020 1,566 5,987 9,013 14.80%
2021 1,334 7,321 7,679 14.80%
2022 1,136 8,458 6,542 14.80%
2023 968 9,426 5,574 14.80%
2024 825 10,251 4,749 14.80%
2025 703 10,954 4,046 14.80%
2026 599 11,553 3,447 14.80%
2027 510 12,063 2,937 14.80%
2028 435 12,498 2,502 14.80%
2029 370 12,868 2,132 14.80%
2030 316 13,183 1,817 14.80%
2031 269 13,452 1,548 14.80%
2032 229 13,681 1,319 14.80%
2033 195 13,877 1,123 14.80%
2034 166 14,043 957 14.80%
2035 142 14,184 816 14.80%
2036 121 14,305 695 14.80%
2037 103 14,408 592 14.80%
2038 88 14,496 504 14.80%
Cumulative 15,000 0


All is not yet lost but the challenge is immense.

Note that this is a two degree budget, not a 1.5°C budget, the “aspiration” of the Paris conference. It is more realistic in that the world will continue to warm once emissions stop – the chances of keeping it to within 1.5 degrees are minimal. On the other hand, this Tyndall Centre advised budget does not assume that unproven and probably infeasible “negative emissions technologies” will mean the world can overshoot and then bring the climate back. Finally, these are emissions that take place in the city and those from the city’s use of gas and electricity. They do not include emissions from creating and delivering the stuff we buy nor those from international shipping and aviation. More on this below.

Much of the emissions load is not under the direct control of the city and its organisations. This cuts both ways, accounting to a large share of the success in making reductions up til 2018. Much of this was due to the partial decarbonisation of the electricity supply, taking coal out of the mix. Measures such as a carbon tax, or an effective tax on motor car emissions, would also make an impact. However, there are a lot of things the city could do to reduce its direct emissions, particularly by establishing genuinely transformational partnerships for the areas that need most attention – e.g. for a low carbon warmth offer to drive down emissions from housing while ensuring people stay warm.

The point also cannot be made often enough that though challenging, this budget is unjust. By continuing to emit even at these lower rates, countries like the UK are saying to the countries of the global South – we’ll continue to use your just share of permissible emissions until the point at which the world as a whole has to have stopped emitting. By then it will be nearly another degree warmer on average, so those countries will be increasingly devastated.

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The report rightly points out that three areas need to be targeted for Manchester’s direct emissions reductions: buildings (mostly from gas burning) and transport are two. They also mention that a lot more electricity could be generated photovoltaically on our rooftops.

Aviation Emissions

While aviation emissions aren’t included in the Manchester carbon budget, failure to cut these emissions will impact on it, reducing it. Therefore the Partnership has been reviewing options for their inclusion. They propose accounting for those flights taken by Manchester residents. This would mean an aviation-specific budget of 6.6 Mtonnes of CO2 equivalent, just over a third the size of the already adopted carbon budget. While this proposal has some logic to it, we argue instead that the city benefits disproportionately (through revenues) from its share in ownership of the Manchester Airport Group and is thereby economically dis-incentivised to make radical reductions. Setting an aviation-specific carbon budget could help mitigate this but it would be fairer to set it to reflect the financial stake the city has in the airport. This approach would also apply to Greater Manchester as a whole since the 10 local authorities are all co-owners of this climate monstrosity.

Consumption-based Emissions

We have long called for the city to take account of its consumption-based emissions. The inclusion of a section on this is therefore welcome. They refer to the C40 cities report which estimated consumption emissions as equivalent to a 60% addition to territorial emissions although we would caution that they could be higher. Following advice from Tyndall Centre researchers, they suggest focussing on likely “hotspots” for emissions, such as “food and drink, construction, clean and waste water, and non-food manufactured goods”. This seems sound: as the C40 Cities work indicates, there are opportunities for cities to make a significant contribution to global emissions reduction by taking into account their consumption patterns.

In part this comes back to an earlier goal of Manchester climate planning: creating a low carbon culture in the city. There is a very long way to go in doing this.

Resilience to a Changing Climate

A picture of a man on a bike on a tarred track through woodland accompanies this section. There are a number of bitty pieces of a potential strategy identified but are they sufficient? The man on the bike will know that trees mean a cooler microclimate. In coming years there will be dangerous heatwaves, exacerbated in places like Manchester city centre with its tonnes and tonnes of concrete, steel and glass. Hackney aims to increase its tree cover by 30% over the coming years, because, as councillor Jon Burke noted in a recent interview, trees are more effective than air conditioners. In the Netherlands, Arnhem plans to plant trees along its roads and to dig up 10% of its tarmac and send 90% of rainwater into the ground rather than via sewers. Like Barcelona already has done, it will create “cooling down” spots, in Arnhem’s case with ponds as well as covered areas. Manchester needs a truly ambitious plan to do similar. It is, not just a question of trees – there needs to be a reduction in space allocated to roads and parking to reduce the risk of flash flooding while improving general urban liveability and reducing emissions and the dirtiness of the air.

Inclusive, Zero Carbon and Climate Resilient Economy

As they say, “it’s the economy, stupid”. Economic activity is intimately linked with flows of materials and energy, and hence with climate emissions. Yet, “The Manchester Inclusive, Zero Carbon and Climate Resilient Economy Advisory Group has not been established at the time of writing”. Perhaps it is assumed that the invisible hand of the market will sort things out. After all, we are told that “In 2019, Manchester’s economy produced 104 tonnes of CO2 per £1m GVA (Gross Value Added) which is a reduction of 55% on 2005 levels.”

So Steady State Manchester needn’t worry about economic growth? Well, not so fast! That reduction, is due to a number of factors. Research by Carbon Brief identifies them.

“Decreases in CO2 emissions from electricity production is one of the main drivers economy-wide…, accounting for around 36% of the total emissions reduction in 2017. This was driven primarily by the transition away from coal and towards gas and renewable generation.

Lower non-electric energy use in the industrial and residential sectors has been another major factor …, responsible for 31% of the emission reduction in 2017. Savings in industry was the largest part of this.”

This graph shows the relative shares of each type of electricity generation.

graph showing UK electricity generation by source
Reproduced from Carbon Brief under a Creative Commons License

Note the steep decline in coal use over the 5 years 2012-2017. That is also the period when Manchester’s emissions/GVA ratio declined most steeply. That isn’t the only factor, and the picture is a complex one. However, the implications are, firstly that changes in the carbon intensity of GVA are not largely due to local decisions, but again, depend on factors not decided locally. Secondly, those changes have been due to the picking of some “low-hanging fruit”, such as the retirement of coal-fired power stations, and areas subject to diminishing returns, such as improvements in vehicle efficiency. Continuing to prioritise the growth of sectors such as logistics (lorry freight), aviation and speculative construction, will only serve to stoke up the city’s carbon emissions.

As we’ve said many times, the pursuit of continued expansion of the economy, is incompatible with climate safety and urban liveability. As an aside to our city’s leaders, now that we are in a full blown recession, why not gracefully retire the stupid pretension of endless growth and instead plan to live within our ecological and planetary means, with fair shares for all? “World class cities” like Amsterdam and Paris are giving us some clues as to how to do this. Manchester really could “do things differently” and become the first major post-growth city.

Concluding sections

Towards the end we learn that,

“It had been envisaged that the Partnership and Agency would publish their action plan for this period alongside this annual report. This work is currently on-hold, pending the appointment of a new Chair for the Partnership and a new Director for the Agency.”

This does not inspire great confidence since the climate isn’t hanging around waiting for us to get our act together. However, the report does conclude with a summary of key priorities for the city, because,

“Urgent and sustained action in these areas is needed to ensure we meet our existing climate change commitments.” …

The priorities are,

• Buildings: retrofitting existing and building zero carbon new buildings,

• Renewable energy: working towards 100% as quickly as possible,

• Transport: walking and cycling more; using more public transport; switching to zero emission vehicles,

• Food: shifting to diets better for our health and the planet’s,

• The things we buy and throw away: buying less; only buying products and services with high environmental and social credentials; reusing and recycling more,

• Green infrastructure and nature based solutions: to adapt to the changing climate and absorb CO2 as well as increasing biodiversity, improving health and achieving other benefits.

To support this Manchester Climate Change Partnership and Agency will be working with Manchester City Council during 2020 to embed climate change at the heart of the Our Manchester Strategy reset and associated recovery work. The Strategy is expected to be published in early-2021.”

That is laudable and essential. But unless the Agency is given the resources it needs to do its work, and the city council begins to take its own declaration of a Climate Emergency seriously, then these aspirations will remain just that: intakes of breath.


Teaser photo credit: By Daniel Nisbet from Manchester, United Kingdom – Manchester from the Sky, CC BY 2.0,

Tags: burning fossil fuels, climate change responses, greenhouse gas emissions