Can a city ever be truly ‘carbon neutral’? Manchester is trying

Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, thinking about how to clean up this dirty town. Image: Getty.

Upon becoming Greater Manchester’s first elected mayor, Andy Burnham announced his ambition to make the city-region one of the greenest in Europe. In his manifesto, the former MP and Labour leadership candidate committed to “a new, accelerated ambition for Greater Manchester on the green economy and carbon neutrality”. If achieved, Manchester would be transformed from one-time poster city for Britain’s dirty past to a decarbonised oasis in the post-industrial north-west of England. What it will take to realise this vision was the topic of a “Green Summit” held in Manchester on 21 March.

The Green Summit website claimed that the best minds from Greater Manchester’s universities and businesses, local activists and residents wouled be brought together to debate how to “achieve carbon neutrality as early as possible”, ideally by 2050. Leading up to the summit, expert workshops and “listening events” were held across the region, in order to inform a forthcoming Green Charter, the plan for how the city will become “carbon neutral”.

We argue that the concept of “carbon neutrality” is a lofty ambition, but it needs unpacking before anyone gets too excited about its potential. The idea that a zero carbon target is the best driver for creating a city-region and planet that’s inclusive and liveable for all raises important questions.

Understanding carbon

Carbon neutrality, or “zero-carbon”, is a curious term. NASA remarks that “carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilisations – our homes, our means of transport – are built on carbon”. Even our bodies are 18.5 per cent carbon. Ridding our cities of carbon suddenly seems absurd. Removing the “backbone of our life on Earth” is surely not on Burnham’s eco-agenda.

So what does “carbon neutral by 2050” actually mean? Understanding a little about carbon footprinting helps to expose the nuances and silences behind the ambition.

“Carbon” stands for a whole raft of greenhouse gases, including CO2. These gases are emitted at various points within the production, transportation and consumption of goods and services.

But establishing responsibility for them depends on your standpoint. Is it the consumer, the manufacturer, the haulage firm, the investor, the source country or the destination country? Our actions and impacts do not respect political boundaries.

Governments typically count carbon emissions following guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Taking a “territorially-based” approach, only the direct carbon emissions (and removals) taking place within a certain city or a country are counted, along with those from the production of the energy consumed. This approach underpins declarations of successes and failures worldwide, but it’s just one way to allocate carbon emission. And herein lies the issue.

An alternative “consumption-based” accounting is more often used by environmental NGOs such as the WWF or some parts of the UK government. This approach counts the total emissions from goods and services (including travel) consumed by a person, city or country, regardless of where they occurred.


Under consumption-based accounting, eating an imported steak means factoring in shipping emissions, the plastic used in packaging, and the emissions from the cow itself – all of which take place far outside of the typical “footprint”. One recent analysis found a group of large cities across the world emitted 60 per cent more carbon when considered like this.

But will Greater Manchester, the aspiring “Northern Powerhouse”, really want to include emissions from such key drivers of economic growth? The city-region has a busy airport, for instance, that it might be convenient to exclude under “zero carbon”. Greater Manchester’s ambition may be laudable, but the zero-carbon definition risks side-lining much-needed action in other areas.

There is some degree of hope. Greater Manchester is implementing a new standard which extends the IPCC’s approach, also considering emissions from residents’ travel beyond Greater Manchester and waste disposed of beyond the city-region. This is significantly more ambitious than a territorial-based approach.

But, even if “zero-carbon” was defined under this approach, there would still be difficult questions as to what extent aviation emissions would be included – if at all – not to mention other consumption-based emissions, such as those from imported food.

Cleaner, greener, and lower carbon

In any case, the city needs environmental policies beyond the focus on becoming “carbon neutral”. Litter is one of the top resident concerns about environmental quality, for instance, while a recent study by MMU’s Gina Cavan found many people in the city have limited access to green and blue spaces. Research by our colleagues found the greatest level of microplastics ever recorded anywhere on the planet in Manchesters’ very own River Tame.

No doubt the mayor and his team will be concerned about these other problems too. But the pollution crises and the lack of access to green spaces are questions of environmental injustice, and their root causes will not necessarily be addressed by carbon neutrality. To avoid obscuring other areas of action, it’s vital that claims about a “carbon neutral” future clearly state what they are referring to.

The ConversationCarbon neutrality doesn’t cover everything – it might only be concerned with decarbonising energy and in-boundary emissions. If Greater Manchester is serious about becoming greener, cleaner and inclusive, then there needs to be accountability for other perspectives on emissions responsibility, including those associated with consumption and aviation.

Joe Blakey, PhD Researcher, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester and Sherilyn MacGregor, Reader in Environmental Politics, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester,

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.