Why are carbon emissions so much higher in Swansea and Middlesbrough?

These belting chimneys are actually in Canada, but it's a cool picture so let's go with it. Image: Tony Webster

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

It’s the 21st century. We get it.

Climate change is an existential threat, global warming is bad, carbon emissions are largely to blame, and if we don’t do something terribly drastic soon, everything we know and love will perish in a Hollywood-movie orgy of rising sea levels, cataclysmic extreme weather events, and men looking seriously at enormous banks of screens.

And yet we carry on, firing up fossil fuel power stations, driving petrol-chugging cars, and producing lots of stuff in emission-belting factories.

Cities, inevitably, are a big part of this. They are congregations of a lot of people, consuming resources, driving to work, and working in CO2-emitting offices, warehouses, and factories.

But some are worse than others. Londoners, who are less likely to sit in badly polluting cars because they have the wonderful tube, emit less CO2 per capita. There may be loads of them, but relative to how many there are, the emissions aren’t that terrible.

Swansea and Middlesbrough, however, are terrible.

Hover over the dots to see the figures for individual cities. Graphic: Centre for Cities.

By the most recent figures in 2014, CO2 emissions per capita stood at 26.78 tons in Swansea, and 26.22 tons in Middlesbrough. For context, the national average is 6.25 tons, and the third most emitting city is Newport, which belts out 7.46 tons per capita, while London only manages a paltry 4.4.

That’s not a particularly recent change, either. Swansea and Middlesbrough have led the field every single year, by quite some margin, since the start of the Centre for Cities’ data in 2006.

Why? Steel, basically.

Middlesbrough hit it off as a big booming iron town. In the Victorian age amid the throes of the industrial revolution, Middlesbrough was known as ‘Ironopolis’, and Dorman Long – a successor firm to one of the big beasts of steel production of the industry – built the Sydney Harbour Bridge, became a major part of the nationalised British Steel Corporation, and only ceased producing steel on Teesside in 2015, not yet covered by the data we have available.

Up until 2010, the area also had a steel plant run by Corus, which later became Tata Steel, the company that got caught up in a steely face-off last year over production in Port Talbot – part of the conurbation of, you guessed it, Swansea.

That big fat steel plant near Swansea. Image: Grubb via Wikimedia Commons

Both have strong power production bases, too. The Swansea area includes Baglan Bay, a bit fat gas-fired power station that has been trundling away since 2003, while Middlesbrough has a phenomenal four active fossil fuel power stations running.

As the area is on the edge of one of the largest historic coalfields in the country, that makes sense, but for a metro area with just under 400,000 people, it seems a little excessive.

But what seems strange is the change in these emissions. Not only are Swansea and Middlesbrough the most CO2-emitting cities in the country, they’re also getting worse.

Looking at the actual change in emissions per capita from 2010 to 2014, you can see that both cities are the only places in the countries that are polluting more.

Top five gross changes in emissions per capita 2010-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

Middlesbrough is up by 8.33 tons, while Swansea is up by 0.13 tons.

Top ten percentage changes in emissions per capita 2010-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

By percentage, the figures for Middlesbrough are pretty astonishing – it polluted 46.58 per cent more in 2014 than it did in 2010.

But it’s a complicated game of numbers.

Top ten percentage changes in emissions per capita 2005-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

If you look right back to the earliest data, from 2005, you can see that Swansea is the only city that emitted more per capita in 2014 than it did almost a decade earlier – up by 4.44 per cent, or 1.14 tons per person.

But Middlesbrough’s not far behind. By percentage change, it has had the smallest decrease in emissions, churning out 16.38 per cent less CO2 per person than it did in 2005.

Top ten decreases in emissions per capita 2005-2014. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities

But because it was so far ahead to start off with, its change is also the biggest gross fall – emitting 5.13 tons fewer per person in 2014 than in 2005.

The picture is unclear. Steel manufacturing in the UK is in a crisis period, with deals and government interventions only a short-term blip in a long-term story of decline, closure, and job losses.


As more data becomes available, and the futures of Britain’s steel plants become apparent, it’s likely that all UK cities will be emitting less CO2 per person year-on-year – and the gradual decommissioning of coal and gas-fired power stations and replacement with clean, shiny, cuddly renewable energy stations (like the big fat tidal power station they keep talking about building in South Wales) will only further that effect.

For now though, tough luck Swansea and Middlesbrough – we’re all pointing our judgmental green fingers at you. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.