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. 

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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