Cities at the front line of the climate crisis

| 11th March 2021 |

Mural of Greta Thunberg by Jody Thomas at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol.

We need UK climate leadership that works for all in the run up to COP26. This is how cities are stepping up to the helm.

The actions cities are taking to cut emissions are also creating much needed jobs, improving air quality and levelling out social inequality.

This 12 months has been an incredibly challenging and painful year for the entire world, and after initial hopes for 2021, the coronavirus pandemic is still raging.

For cities, this means that they must keep diverting resources to saving lives, reinforcing healthcare services, and bolstering their local economies as cases remain high and mass unemployment persists.

In the UK, some 1.69 million people were left without work from August to October 2020 period, up from 241,000 in the three months prior, and 411,000 more than in 2019.


A year on from the first UK lockdown, cities and their citizens continue to be on the front lines of this crisis. At the same time, COP26 is only months away.

Tackling the coronavirus pandemic and saving lives must remain a priority, but the climate crisis must also be tackled now – so COP26 this November will be a decisive event during a critical decade if we are to meet the task set by the climate science and halve global emissions by 2030.  

With the country in the midst of a third lockdown, we also cannot ignore the social inequalities coronavirus has thrown into plain sight.

From BAME populations being more at risk to Covid-19, the increased risk to vulnerable children posed by the closure of schools, to smaller, local businesses having to shut due to lockdown restrictions, there is a clear need to build back better for all.

The actions cities are taking to cut emissions are also creating much needed jobs, improving air quality and levelling out social inequality.

UK cities know what is at stake if we slow momentum on climate action, and they’re stepping up to the helm in response.


Despite the upheaval Covid-19 has wrought, more UK local authorities reported their climate and environmental data to CDP this year than ever before - 33 in total - 17 of which disclosed for the first time. 

Together, they represent 21 percent or 93 million tonnes (Scope 1 and Scope 2) of UK emissions, 52 percent of UK GDP, and 23 million citizens. Their collective climate actions count now more than ever.

Before the coronavirus pandemic first struck almost a year ago, UK citizens were taking to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to demand more and faster climate action, and cities declared climate emergencies in direct response.

UK cities know that they must deliver the task set by the latest climate science. But they also know that climate action can provide other benefits to their citizens.

The actions cities are taking to cut emissions are also creating much needed jobs, improving air quality and levelling out social inequality.

Fuel poverty

And understanding these co-benefits can drive further climate action, with cities that identify such co-benefits reporting 2.5x more climate actions than those that don’t.

In November 2018, Bristol City Council became the first in the UK to declare a climate emergency, and with this announcement, pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030.

In 2020 Bristol was one of four UK cities named on the CDP Cities A list, which recognises global city climate leaders, yet another indication of the city’s climate action and ambition.

And Bristol is making headway. Since 2005, carbon emissions from energy, waste and transport in the city have decreased by 36 percent.

But the city has another task – providing access to low cost and low carbon energy to the 11 percent, or over 20,000, of households living in fuel poverty.


The seriousness of this issue is highlighted by the 3,200 excess winter deaths in the UK linked directly to people living with low incomes and high, or relatively high energy bills – a combination that, in stark reality, simply makes a warm home unaffordable.

Bristol knows it must tackle both the climate crisis and social inequality. Addressing fuel poverty is just one example of how the city is doing this.

Bristol’s solution to fuel poverty lies in the development of district heat networks across the city.

Energy is generated by a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that quite simply turns two separate processes into one – reducing emissions and increasing efficiency to deliver affordable, low-carbon heat and energy to its citizens.

And this is effective. To date, the city has invested over £6 million in the project, transforming domestic heating for over 1,000 families living in social housing.


Looking to the future, and ever focused on reducing fuel poverty across the city, the council is also working with developers to ensure future citizens can benefit from cost and carbon savings.

In January last year, Bristol City Council agreed to its first commercial connection to the network. The Castle Park View development’s 375 new homes are to be kept warm by low-carbon and affordable heat once building is completed in 2022.

Emissions are also plummeting as a result. Energy efficiency and renewable energy actions taken across the city have resulted in a 77 percent reduction against its carbon neutral target.

These actions are bolstering Bristol’s economy too, with £1.9 million per year generated from the city’s renewable assets.

Named by the UK Government as one of six cities in need of a Clean Air Zone, Birmingham City Council is getting ready to launch its Zone in June this year.


Meanwhile, the city is all too aware that it must provide support to businesses and citizens - including its more than 5,000 taxi drivers.

After the city’s taxi drivers expressed concern that the government motion would “jeopardise driver’s livelihoods”, Birmingham City Council is allocating 39 percent of its £38 billion Clean Air Fund to support them.

For the city’s taxi drivers, that means subsidies for the cost of a new, hybrid or ULEV vehicle, retrofit of older models, and “try before you buy” scheme of newer, lower-carbon models This support is vital, especially at a time of severe economic downturn.

Electric vehicles added to the fleet will need charging infrastructure, and the City Council is ready to start delivering its EV rapid charging strategy.

Over the next two years, the council will be installing a new network of 394 fast and rapid charge points across the city, using £2.9m of OLEV grant funding.


The city is also making this step to help local businesses and citizens. With UK electric vehicle ownership increasing by 184 percent from September 2019 to 2020, and plug-in hybrid registrations up by 139 percent in the same period, it’s clear that UK citizens want to play their part in driving the low carbon transition.    

And this is just one of many signs of growing public concern for the climate. Before Covid-19, citizens and the climate science called on governments to step up their action.

In the throes of the pandemic, 79 percent of the UK Climate Assembly declared support for coronavirus economic measures that simultaneously cut carbon emissions.

With the most pivotal COP only months away, the UK government knows that “we owe it to future generations to build back better”.

Meanwhile, cities remain on the frontlines of the climate and public health crisis. With the need to show domestic leadership in the run up to COP26, there is a real opportunity to tackle the crises of climate, public health, and social inequality at once – and cities are paving the way.

This Author

Simeran Bachra is the UK Cities manager at CDP.


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