Exeter City Council has excluded scope 3 carbon emissions from a baseline greenhouse gas emissions inventory it commissioned to plan Exeter decarbonisation, effectively ensuring that the city will not meet its “Net Zero Exeter 2030” goal.
Scope 3 includes indirect carbon emissions which are imported through the consumption of goods and services from elsewhere, largely including transport, shipping and aviation, procurement and supply chains, waste management and commercial activity.
The most widely-used international emissions accounting tool, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol is a corporate reporting approach which includes fifteen scope 3 emissions categories. A Greenhouse Gas Protocol for Cities builds on this tool to provide a basis for community-scale carbon emission measurement.
In 2016 the ONS estimated that 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint related to imported emissions while DEFRA found the proportion had risen to 43% two years later. Both used a consumption-based approach to analyse the country’s carbon footprint that complements, but does not map directly on to, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol for Cities approach.
Wealthy cities typically import a high proportion of their emissions. Those with low levels of carbon-intensive industrial activity, such as Exeter, tend to be at the upper end of this group. So the share of scope 3 imported emissions in Exeter may be as much as 50% or more of the city’s carbon footprint.
The council has not announced its decision to exclude these emissions from Exeter’s carbon plans. It was instead buried in the minutes of an audit and governance committee which have only just been published, nearly a month after the meeting took place, in the same week that the IPCC delivered its latest comprehensive review of climate science.
The IPCC report is a final warning for policy-makers. It says greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 to give the world a chance of meeting the all-scopes Paris Agreement targets.
Professor Jim Skea of Imperial College, who is a member of the UK Climate Change Committee and co-chair of the IPCC Working Group which authored the report said: “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”
UN secretary general António Guterres added: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing — but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
We asked the council when and on what basis the decision was taken to exclude scope three emissions from the Exeter greenhouse gas emissions baseline inventory it commissioned, as well as who took the decision.
It said: “The work was commissioned following the decision of council to establish a carbon budget for the city of Exeter to show the baseline position for the city, the various city sectors that contribute to carbon emissions, and the targets to achieve Net Zero 2030. There was no intention to include scope 3 emissions in this particular commission.”
However neither of the decisions taken by councillors to commission a carbon budget mentions any such exclusion.
In July 2019 they resolved to “conduct a full audit of the city to highlight gaps between current plans and what is required to achieve carbon neutral” and to “define a clear city plan showing outcomes that will need to be met to deliver carbon neutral”.
Exeter City Futures was initially tasked with delivery. The company said it would assemble an academic team with the requisite specialist expertise to establish a “robust definition of what is included in the measurement of Exeter’s carbon emissions” as well as a measurement framework to make sense of all the data.
However it later admitted that it did not have the “resource capacity” to deliver the promised audit. Nor did it assemble an expert academic team to define the city’s carbon footprint or produce the framework.
The “Net Zero Exeter” plan that Exeter City Futures subsequently produced, and which the council adopted in July 2020, failed to account for around a million tonnes of annual Exeter greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the emissions it ignored are in scope 3.
The council did nothing about this until a second decision, taken in December last year, to “establish a carbon budget for the city of Exeter to show the baseline position for the city, the various city sectors who contribute to carbon emissions [and] the targets to achieve net zero”.
This decision was taken in response to calls from Green Party councillors for an Exeter carbon budget based on properly calculated baseline emissions which specifies the annual reductions required to meet the city’s decarbonisation goals, and an annual report which demonstrates progress towards these goals.
The council’s chief executive had already said there was a high risk that the council would be unable to “deliver carbon neutral aspirations for Exeter by 2030”.
So when Green Party councillor Diana Moore followed up with a formal question about the study at last month’s audit and governance committee meeting it should perhaps not have come as a surprise that the council had quietly decided not to include scope 3 emissions in its plans “at this stage given the limited ability to be able to take direct action”.
In response to our questions the council said it had restricted the study to territorial emissions on the basis such emissions are “more in the control of people living, working and visiting the city”. The council nevertheless includes scope 3 emissions arising from its purchasing decisions in its own corporate carbon budget.
The council offered no explanation for its contradictions over imported consumption emissions, and it won’t tell us who decided to implement the July 2019 decision to commission a city carbon budget this way.
Exeter can nevertheless anticipate a “clear position statement” in “early summer” from Exeter City Futures, which the council says has a “key lobbying and influencing role” in regional and national policy-making “in relation to scope 3 emissions”.
The city council’s decision to exclude imported emissions from Exeter’s decarbonisation plan makes a nonsense of its commitment to Exeter being “recognised as a leading sustainable city and global leader in addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges of climate change and urbanisation”.
At the same time Devon County Council’s Devon Climate Emergency Response Group also largely excludes scope 3 emissions from its carbon footprint calculations.
It omits aviation and shipping altogether (despite estimating that flights from Exeter airport alone were responsible for 173,000tCO2e in 2019) and only includes scope 3 emissions associated with the transmissions and distribution of electricity in its figures, which are supplied by the same University of Exeter team commissioned by the city council.
In September 2020 the city council said it had put fighting climate change “at the top of its agenda”, quoting a pledge by council leader Phil Bialyk that the “ambition of creating a net zero carbon city by 2030 will be at the heart of everything the council does going forward”.
The following month Labour councillor Rachel Sutton, who is Executive Portfolio Holder for Net Zero Exeter 2030, said that Exeter was “in the vanguard of this nationwide challenge” and was “one of the few councils in the country to have set out a road map that was both deliverable and practical”.
Since then the city’s decarbonisation plans have been found wanting in a nationwide council climate action plan study which ranked Somerset West and Taunton as the highest scoring local authority area in the country. Its Carbon Neutrality and Climate Resilience Action Plan (published in September 2020) addresses all three emissions scopes.
Last year’s Exeter local elections campaign was dominated by Labour claims about the council’s environmental credentials, and the party’s efforts this year look similarly focussed. Its campaign leaflets say Exeter is “an exemplar city in the UK for carbon reduction” which is “leading the way on climate change and the green agenda”.
Perhaps the council leader’s use of the word “ambition” reveals what’s really going on? Its Latin root means “to go around canvassing for votes”.
Several carbon emissions accounting approaches have been developed during the thirty years since the Rio Summit, and efforts to refine these approaches continue.
A comprehensive (and globally just) approach to calculating the carbon emissions of a given population or geography requires the use of a methodology which accounts not only for emissions produced (and consumed) with that territory, but also emissions that are imported (and exported).
Such an approach accounts for emissions in the places where goods and services are consumed, rather than the (usually many) places that respond to that demand by supplying the goods or services in which emissions are embedded. It produces what is often referred to as a carbon footprint for that population or geography.
In the UK there are teams at several universities working on carbon emissions accounting methodologies, each of which have produced slightly different accounts of the situation for various reasons, as we outlined in a previous story which attempted to estimate the true size of Exeter’s carbon footprint.
The University of Exeter Centre for Energy and the Environment team commissioned by the city council to produce Exeter’s baseline carbon budget follows, but does not fully adhere to, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol for Cities approach to calculate carbon emissions for places.
The Devon Carbon Plan also relies on this team for its county-wide figures, which are broken down into districts on the Devon Climate Emergency website.
However both the county, and now the city, have omitted scope 3 emissions from their carbon budgets, ignoring even the aviation and shipping emissions which the government decided to include in the UK’s sixth carbon budget twelve months ago.
Sweden has since become the world’s first country to decide to include comprehensive consumption-based emissions in its national climate targets (which are to reach net zero by 2045, five years earlier than the UK).
The restricted territorial approach to emissions measurement chosen by unnamed local council officers in Exeter has the effect of ignoring around half, perhaps more, of the greenhouse gases that are generated by the actions of people who live and work here.
It is undoubtedly very difficult to truly reduce our carbon emissions to levels compatible with limiting global heating to 1.5°C. Radical changes far beyond current local discourse would be required.
However simply excluding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of annual carbon emissions from city and county decarbonisation plans not only misrepresents the situation, misguiding individual and organisational decision-making and action, it denies the options we do have to reduce imported consumption emissions altogether.